Free State of Jones is inspired by real events that took place in Jones County, Mississippi following the United States’ civil war. As expected, Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar, Dallas Buyers Club) is impressive as Newton Knight, a former army medic who lead an armed rebellion against the confederate army. The film also features strong performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a freedwoman named Rachel, and Mahershala Ali as a former slave named Moses who joins Knight’s movement.
There is a lot to like about Free State of Jones besides an obviously talented cast. The cinematography is skillful and shots are well executed at moments when they will be at their most effective. Visually, it is an atmospheric film that feels aesthetically intentional. Newton Knight is painted in a largely positive light which makes for an undeniably appealing “Robin Hood” story that is difficult to dislike. Unfortunately, it also makes for a rather shallow narrative and a character that is void of the kind of nuance that is needed to create a truly memorable film.
Directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games), Free State of Jones fails to breathe life and energy into the events that it depicts despite the fact that it covers an important, nuanced, and vibrant period of history. Ross never seems to manage to bring his audience fully into Knight’s psychology or humanity. Partly to blame are the scenes set in the 1940’s that show one of Knight’s descendants on trial for miscegeny; these moments detract from – rather than enhance – the main post-civil war plotline.
For a film that covers more than a decade of events that saw rapid changes come to the south, Free State of Jones feels as if it has bitten off more than it can chew. The pace is rapid; even though the total run time of the film is almost two-and-a-half hours, there are moments when details feel rushed. The result is a viewing experience that certainly isn’t dull, but it lacks the kind of depth and emotional impact that a film with this calibre of talent should be more than capable of producing.
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