From the Archives: Free State of Jones review

From the Archives: Free State of Jones review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Free State of Jones is one of those ambitious movies that can’t decide what it wants to be and is always at odds with what the audience wants it to be. Unfortunately, this means that this uncommonly thorough, and comparatively unflinching historical piece will mostly be regarded as a disaster, even though it’s quite good. At 145 minutes, this look into a rarely considered period of the Civil War feels more like a cut-down miniseries than a singular movie, but where many filmmakers would throw some Hollywood shine onto it and make a swift, brutal 95 minute crowd-pleaser, Gary Ross has instead opted to make what could only be referred to as a historical procedural. There’s not an ounce of flare to it – the camera is mostly static with not a transition to be found – but what it lacks in cinematic showiness it more than makes up for in period detail. This looks like the 1860s, from the land itself down to the scores of rotten teeth. And while it’s a bit too educational and explanatory to be an explosive night at the movies, one gets the feeling that Free State of Jones isn’t doing much by way of embellishment. Sure, it was a blast to watch handsome-pants Mel Gibson cut apart squads of Redcoats with a hatchet, but no one left The Patriot with a better understanding of American history. As of this week, my knowledge of the American Civil War has expanded a bit. This is good. This is relevant.

The film begins in 1862 and follows Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate soldier/nurse who, after seeing one too many of his friends and family killed or otherwise abused as a result of the war, decides to defect. He wishes not to fight and die just to line the pockets of richer men (message?!?!? MESSAGE!!!!!), and would rather live a life on the run. Over the next decade and change he works with other defectors, their families, and escaped slaves to establish a new colony, the Free State of Jones, which is totally the name of the movie. The laws of this land are based in the notion of true equality amongst all of its citizens. They also manage to steal a ton of corn, which really made me want corn. I’ve never seen so much corn.

The film juxtaposes the struggle of the poor white farmer with that of the black slave without cheapening their very different-but-related struggles. At no point does the film fall into the trappings of “magical white man saves the slaves” or “magical slaves enlighten a man to true freedom of spirit,” nor is there even very much posturing to that end. The citizens of Jones help each other because it’s right, and because their numbers give them strength, not because of any modernized racial histrionics. This isn’t to say that life in Jones is perfect either. At the end of the war (this film covers a very long period of time), old prejudices threaten to fire up within the colony, casting much light on how easy it (still) is to fall into systemic patterns.

Intermittently throughout the film, we glimpse into the first half of the 20th century, where one of Newt’s descendants is fighting a court battle regarding the legality of his marriage. Davis Knight is 1/8 black, and despite his white appearance, it’s more than enough to make his marriage to a white woman a felony. It’s an interesting and welcome addition to the film, and it comes together in a thematically resonant way, but the transition to these segments is jarring, simply because it is in these moments that Free State of Jones begins to act like a movie in the classic sense … before jumping right back into a linear history lesson.

The performances range from passable to good, with McConaughey abandoning his hunkiness to play a leading man with no leading man qualities. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the standout as the escaped slave who eventually marries Newt. It’s nice to see Keri Russell on the big screen again (Dark Skies FOREVER, yo), and Mahershala Ali puts on the type of performance that so many inferior actors would let devolve into caricature. Nobody is shooting for Oscars here, and it’s a good thing.

Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

There’s also a scene where McConaughey is teaching a freed slave how to read a silent ‘g’. One of the words he uses is ‘alright,’ which is my new favorite thing.

Free State of Jones is a bit overlong … or maybe it’s not long enough. It’s blander than it could have been … or maybe it’s smartly avoiding genre cliches. It’s good. It’s bad. It’s commendably well-researched. While it might not be the most engaging film for a lot of people, it’s refreshingly atypical.

Overall, it’s alright…

…alright, alriiiiiiiiight.

Free State of Jones opens today in Philly area theaters.

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