Free State Of Jones can be defined as a Civil War “epic” only in length, as this two-hour-plus disaster slowly plays out like a never-ending highway pileup (we’re talking 70 cars deep, at least). There’s absolutely no focus, horrendous over-bloating, and a cataclysmically inept method of storytelling that incoherently blurs numerous cinematic deliveries.
Writer/Director Gary Ross begins with his colonial answer to Saving Private Ryan‘s D-Day opening, only to devolve his “true story” into a “Whitesplaining” history lesson complete with informational text blurbs and eroded photos from the 1800s. Truly – and frustratingly – this is a movie that never ends, marching on for what seems like an eternity of dopily dry historical regurgitation. Tedious, emotionally-numbing, when-is-this-over regurgitation.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Confederate defector Newton Knight, a pioneer who leaves his wife and child to avoid hanging. Newt eventually meets up with a group of runaway slaves – led by a man named Moses (Mahershala Ali) – and together they start fighting back against Southern oppression. As word of their rebellion spreads, more slaves and defectors join their ranks. Eventually, Newt has himself a certifiable army, big enough to cut off enemy supply runs and chase away tax men who raid impoverished households for supplies. But even after the war, Newt realizes that the battle for justice still wages on – something he’ll never be able to live with.
Yes, this is essentially a 1860s Robin Hood tale – except without any of the fun and a lot more dead animals. Specifically dogs. From the very first scenes, we know Ross doesn’t know how to win an audience over by the way he murders numerous canines on-camera. This act ranks highest among the ways to cheaply trick audiences into thinking your movie is “raw” or “gritty,” because said murders merely represent an emotional ploy meant to draw out ANY kind of reaction.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, so strap in…
Running at a excruciatingly laborious two-hours-and-nineteen minutes, Free State Of Jones barely justifies an hour’s worth of its “white hero in the deep South” tale. Ross drags his shots on for long periods of nothingness, and inserts wholly unnecessary asides for added…depth, maybe? Every time you think the film is finally wrapping up, Ross (and co-writer Leonard Hartman) cuts away to another funeral scene, just to dig one more depression-soaked dagger in for good measure. Because we don’t already understand how terrifyingly unjust the treatment of slaves and colored citizens was, apparently? Ross’ voiceless presentation simply beats a dead slave for the hell of it, to confirm that African Americans were treated horrendously – which, again, we already knew.
Then, out of nowhere, there’s a cutaway to a 1900s courthouse where Newt’s relative is being tried for unlawfully wedding a white woman (Newt might have bedded a slave, yadda yadda) – because there wasn’t enough confusing tonality already. Now we’ve got a preachy history teacher’s lecture mixing with Leave It To Beaver dramatics from a different era? “85 years later” flashes across the screen and immediate thoughts of “What the f*#k” arise with just-cause. I get it – you want to show how the fight for social justice waged on (and still does) FAR past the Civil War, but maybe we didn’t need these extra twenty minutes of misplaced frivolity (and hammy acting)? Actually, I’ll answer that – we don’t.
The worst part is, Matthew McConaughey plays Newt’s do-gooding nature with inspired rebelliousness, and Mahershala Ali comes into his own as a semi-leading actor. Gugu Mbatha-Raw defaults to being an abused yet emotional slave, Keri Russell embodies dejectedness, and even bit parts like Sean Bridgers’ Will find fitting placement in Ross’ old-school world. There are slack-jawed, n-word slinging performances here worth their weight, in a film that simply can’t support them all – or any. Ross isn’t even “whitesplaining” at this point – he’s “McConaughsplaining” slavery and trying to put African Americans and caucasians on the same level. We’re supposed to feel a bonded community, but instead are left oddly jilted by an unfair comparison that tethers no line between races at such a time.
Here’s my confused rant on Free State Of Jones – we’re supposed to sympathize with a heroic Southerner who leaves his wife, then watch him shack up with a former slave and force his wife and son to move back in with them both. Different times, I guess? There’s an insane amount of bloodshed – hollowed-out craniums, torn limbs, battle-surgery – but also a strange schoolroom vibe that doesn’t coexist with more narrative bouts of dramatic warfare. Ross declares nothing new about what arguably stands as America’s most volatile period in social injustice, yet drags his ever-repeating message on for what seems like a racist eternity. After all is said and done, where’s the point?
When I left 12 Years A Slave only a few years ago, my night was ruined. McQueen’s glimpse into slave life emotionally gutted me, leaving my human will spilled all over the theater floor. Wrecked, heartbroken, and painfully sullen, I couldn’t help but feel lasting effects of a period long ago. But Free State Of Jones? I left feeling exhausted, slighted and furiously unaffected. Like someone walloped me with a Social Studies textbook for two hours, then sent me on my way. Senseless, out-of-touch inspiration without any heart or soul.
I believe there’s a worthwhile version of Free State Of Jones somewhere – after cutting down, say, an hour of chewy fat? We spit out half of what Gary Ross serves up, especially when it’s the same leathery flavor for every course. Knight’s company seals a major victory, Ross cuts away to another tragedy, and we’re right back to white people slinging more n-words around. Rinse and repeat. Droll and tiresome don’t even begin to describe this cinematic experience, even in acknowledging the few rock-solid scenes that do exist (graveyard shootout/muddy swamp landscapes). The problem is, with so much generic musket-firing to sift through, all the best stuff gets lost in a…well…I don’t even have a description.
It all just gets lost.