“Last time I checked, a gun don’t care who is pulling the trigger,” says Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer and deserter from the Confederate Army who’s protecting his neighbor’s wife and daughters from a raid by a local squad of Confederate men in the dramatic Civil War film, Free State of Jones.
While serving in the Confederate Army as a medic during the Civil War, Knight is sickened by all the death and waste of life on the battlefield. When he discovers that his young nephew, Daniel (Jacob Lofland), has been drafted into the army, he sets out to protect him from the battlefield as best he can. Unfortunately, Knight can’t save his nephew from the carnage that is war and he ends up dying in his arms. Disgusted with what the Confederate Army will do to their own people and wanting to take his nephew’s body back home, Newton leaves the army and travels back to Jones County.
Once home it’s not long before Knight hears about how the Confederate Army keeps stealing the crops and livestock from the struggling local farmers for the war effort, leaving them to starve. After helping his neighbor chase off a small band of Confederate thieves, Knight must go on the run and hides out in the swamp where the Confederate soldiers with their horses can’t go. It’s not long before Knight bands together with other small farmers, who have been oppressed by the Confederates, as well as local slaves to launch an uprising against the Confederacy. As his small army of 200-300 men fight against the local soldiers and eventually a regiment of troops, Knight’s rebellion leads Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones.
Based on a true story, Free State of Jones is a ponderous, overly ambitious, and melodramatic film that tries to cover too much history and fails as a result. It’s a slow moving and uneven film that works best when it focuses on Knight being a wanted deserter and becoming the Southern “Robin Hood” of Jones County, rising up against the Confederacy and creating a rebellion. Once the war is over and the film continues on trying to cover the struggle of blacks in the South fighting for their right to vote and against the KKK, the film becomes a dull, lifeless, and meandering mess.
Almost all the characters are one-dimensional, except for Knight played by Matthew McConaughey who is shown as a smart, determined, and ahead of his time if not his Century rebel and leader. McConaughey delivers a solid performance as Knight but what’s lacking is the usual intensity and charisma that the Oscar-winning actor always brings to his roles. Keri Russell, best known for her strong performance on the FX television series The Americans, is wasted in the film as Serena Knight’s nagging wife who doesn’t support her husband’s actions. The character disappears for half the film only to return to fuel a pointless and uninteresting subplot about Knight’s son. It’s a true crime to waste the talents of such an outstanding actress.
Free State of Jones strives to tell a unique and intriguing story about a little known part of America’s history, but ends up delivering a boring, painfully slow, and unengaging film.
Directed By: Gary Ross
MPAA Rating: R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
Running Time: 139 minutes
Release Date: June 24, 2016