Review: Free State of Jones

If Matthew McConaughey hadn’t already won his best actor Oscar for The Dallas Buyers Club, this film would be his Revenant. The similarities are easy to see: both are period pieces based on true stories that require a handsome lead to go grimy and shoot muskets in the elements. The difference between that picture and the Free State of Jones is that instead of machismo and revenge, Jones focuses on the arc of history that slowly bends toward justice.

In the age of 12 Years A Slave, Free State of Jones is sure to face some criticisms about another white savior project, but director Gary Ross delivers a clear-eyed depiction of the Reconstruction period colored by false nostalgia. Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation falsely imprinted a romanticism around the Lost Cause of the Confederacy that has infused itself into the American consciousness. That legacy has lived on long past the relevance of half of the aforementioned films and still serves as inspiration for Hell on Wheels and The Keeping Room. So it can be forgiven that Ross uses a little too much of Free State of Jones to pass along what he has learned in the two years it took him to write the film.

We first meet Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) serving as a medical nurse for the Confederacy in 1862. Bloody conflict has already set cracks in Newt’s resolve, but resignation gives way to outright disdain after he witnesses the death of his young nephew, Daniel (Jacob Lofland). Tired of fighting a war to protect the small ruling-class’ vested interest in cotton Newt simply goes home. Once there, he finds that new legislation gives Confederate soldiers license to raid the homes of poor farmers while slave owners are exempt from conscription into the war. His home, and many others of Jones County, have been looted for the glories of the South.

Left with few alternatives and on the run, Newt hides out in the deep woods of Mississippi with escaped slaves. One of them, Moses (Mahershala Ali) comments on a bloodhound that terrorized Newt, “You must taste like we do, the way it latched onto you.” The fear present in these scenes is palpable, while also serving as a reminder to Newt and other disillusioned soldiers that the Civil War was about preserving power structures already in place.

McConaughey broke out of his career slump when playing morally ambiguous leads and sleazy purveyors of vice, but Newt Knight isn’t necessarily a return to edge-less protagonists. While Newt Knight might seem like the edge-less hero of a white savior story, he possesses his own Old Testament fervor, raging against inequality, but initially only concerned with equality of class. His consciousness of racial politics doesn’t coalesce until meeting Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Moses.

Rachel tends secretly to the group while passing along information she gathered from her service. As other small farmers and local slaves join the effort to secede from the Confederacy, the group gives way to armed rebellion. Confederates hopes to contain this insurrection with their own war of attrition against the Knight Company, but the group is already self-sufficient in the swamps they know so well. Though ending the film with the surrender of the Confederacy would be tidy, Knight’s story doesn’t end with the conclusion of the Civil War. Struggles for Newt and Rachel, now living as man and wife continue into Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. A relationship that faces burdens from within, as Newt’s former wife, Selena (Keri Russell) is still present. A premise which could have filled an entire film by itself.

Short of a seven-part miniseries by Ken Burns, there is too much present in the Newt Knight story to lay it all out in the two hours available. Ross studied the material for two years and, unfortunately, the homework is felt when watching the picture. Footnotes make multiple appearances to offer historical context and background information to even-out poetic license and composite characters necessary in making a Hollywood story. It’s admirable for Ross to be so thorough in representing the actuality of what happened, but he does lose the human element of characters (particularly, Rachel and Moses) in attempting to tell decades of history.

For all of the revelry that comes with the Knight Company’s triumphs over the Confederacy, a bitterness lingers as the film dwindles down after the last remaining minutes. Almost 90 years later, in 1948, Newt and Rachel’s great-grandson was convicted under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman. Newt could be forgiven for fighting the Confederacy, but never for the children he had with Rachel. As William Faulkner noted “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

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Originally published at www.cutprintfilm.com on June 23, 2016.