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Free State of Jones

Posted on the 24 June 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Free State of JonesFree State of Jones (2015) is everything you'd expect from a Civil War film by the director of The Hunger Games. Gary Ross's epic is well-made but underwhelming, trading depth and insight for obvious dramatic beats.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts from the Confederate Army after the Battle of Second Corinth. Knight joins a band of runaway slaves and deserters for protection against Confederate Home Guard units. Eventually their resistance builds into all-out rebellion; Knight's men wage guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy and overrun Jones County, Mississippi. Once the war ends, Knight and his followers find their gains washed away by Jim Crow.

Free State of Jones draws on a true story, which Ross milks for crowd-pleasing elements. The film opens with an epic battle relishing gory details: graphic amputations, hogs devouring entrails. One set piece involves a funeral ambush, with black-clothed widows blasting Confederate heads and Knight strangling a villain with his belt. Benoit Delhomme complements with dynamic camerawork, probing spooky mangrove swamps, burning plantation homes and nocturnal Klan raids.
Despite the premise, Jones often feels stilted. Ross keeps characterization rote: Knight is tough and charismatic but lacks depth. His "leave me be" motive seems more selfish than righteous. His romance with a runaway slave (Gubu Mbatha-Raw) provides human interest, but a subplot involving his returned wife (Keri Russell) amounts to nothing. Eventually, the mix of guerrilla raids and Confederate atrocities grows repetitive.
Ross dwells on Knight's fate during Reconstruction. His colleague Moses (Mahershala Ali) registers blacks to vote; Knight endures indignity from Mississippi officials who replace slavery with segregation. What might be a bittersweet coda drags on interminably, like the first act of another movie; Knight goes from hero to cranky bystander. Even worse is a flash-forward subplot showing Newton's son on trial for miscegenation, sloppily woven into the narrative.
Matthew McConaughey commits to a demanding role, playing with fiery conviction. He dominates the film to the detriment of his costars. Gubu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali, at least, are strong enough to transcend their thin characters. Others play stock types, like Bill Tangradi's craven Confederate and Joe Chrest's lecherous slave owner. Jill Jane Clements has a fun bit as an amoral tavern owner.
Free State of Jones is a good idea indifferently executed. I'm all for Civil War movies, especially those exploding the Lost Cause myth, but Newton Knight deserves a better try than this messy, disappointing muddle.

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