(NEW YORK) — Based on actual events, Free State of Jones stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a Civil War nurse for the Confederacy who deserts and heads home to Mississippi, where he raises a very small guerrilla army comprised of other deserters, former slaves, women and children and rebels against the Confederacy.
Director Gary Ross starts out strong, immersing us in a realistic Civil War battle, from the Confederate perspective. It’s graphic, filled with brutal details that remind us how awful war is, and yet laced with humanity, a projection of our hero’s heart. Too bad the rest of the movie lacks the intensity, grittiness and intelligence of these opening moments.
The violence already has Knight disillusioned with war, but a new law allowing men from families who own at least 20 slaves to be exempt from service really shakes his confidence in the cause. That confidence is broken when a young family friend — who was, in essence, kidnapped and forced to fight in the war — is killed while Knight’s trying to get him back home.
Knight returns home to his wife (Keri Russell) and young son, where he learns local soldiers have been pillaging his neighbors’ property for food, clothes and ammunition. It isn’t long before Knight, in his efforts to protect a neighbor, is discovered by Confederate soldiers. It’s time for him to hide, with the help of a slave named Rachel, played by future Oscar-winner Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
As talented as McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw are, Ross mishandles the relationship between their characters. It just never feels real. Indeed, outside of the opening moments, nothing else in this film rings true. That’s disappointing, considering Ross’ previous work as a director – including The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit and Pleasantville – is, for the most part, terrific. I’d blame the writer, but Ross wrote the screenplay, too.
At its very best, Free State of Jones is an amazing history lesson with admirable performances. At its worst, it’s a poorly-paced, unrealistic, unfocused narrative that takes historical license with one of the Civil War’s more compelling stories that had, until now, been relegated to mainstream obscurity.
Two-and-a-half out of five stars.
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