Bringing stories that are based on true events to the big screen is no easy feat. And director and writer Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “The Hunger Games”) had his work cut out for him. Not only does “Free State of Jones” deal with true events in the life of Newton Knight, but it deals with several other matters–slavery, the Civil War, and a trial set eighty five years in the future. And although its run time is two hours and twenty minutes, Ross isn’t able to weave together all the pieces in order for the film to work.
In 1862, civil war divides the country. Young men are drafted to fight and all Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), can do is watch as they are injured or die on the battlefield. His only solace comes from being a nurse and being able to lend a hand. But when a young man he knows from town, no older than eighteen, dies in his arms, he deserts the Confederate army to take the boy’s body home. Now wanted for leaving the army, Newton finds that everything back home isn’t right either.
The Confederate soldiers not fighting on the front lines are instead in town abusing their power, shaving off a large percentage of the farmers’ share of crop money. When Newton finds himself on the defensive of the abused farm owners and the soldiers find out he deserted the war, he becomes a wanted man. With his wife (Keri Russell) running scared and leaving town, Newton finds himself running for the swamps, with the help of a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Once there, he meets Moses (Mahershala Ali) and several other runaway slaves. After several farmers are fed up with the way they’re being treated, Newton rallies freed white men and slaves alike to rebel against the Confederate soldiers who’ve done them wrong.
As a film, “Free State of Jones” is just ok. It tries to cover a lot of events, but the writing doesn’t develop any one thing beyond what it initially presents. The plot moves at a very glacial pace, and so patience is certainly required. The main story line is very basic and, although there are some good moments for certain characters (Gugu Mbatha-Raw completely owns the scene where she breaks down), it doesn’t allow for a whole lot of real character development. It also plays too into the white savior aspect of the story. It looks at first that the runaway slaves will take more part in the story (and they should have), but it’s unfortunate to say that they serve the story to mostly prop up McConaughey’s character. This isn’t really surprising, but still sad to say the least.
What really bogs down the movie is its intent. Of course, the era between 1862 through 1866 is littered with changes in the country; laws, slave status, war, economy, all play major roles, but the focus of the film doesn’t zoom in on any particular thing. This creates a disconnect between the audience and the characters without meaning to. What really takes away from what’s happening in the 1860s is the flash forward to the late 1940s. There, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is in court defending his right to marry a white woman, all because he happens to be one-eighth African American, which deems it illegal under the segregation laws of the time. This plot line especially brings us out of the main story and into one that is relevant, yet unnecessary within the scope of the film.
Perhaps “Free State of Jones” would have worked better if it had been a mini-series. This way, all the more disjointed parts of the plot could have had time to develop and come full circle, tying in with the main story about the farmers’ rebellion. As it stands, the film isn’t a complete mess, but with its slow pace, lack of cohesion, and proper character development, it does leave a lot to be desired.
Perhaps "Free State of Jones" would have worked better if it had been a mini-series. As it stands, the film isn't a complete mess, but with its slow pace and lack of cohesion, it does leave a lot to be desired.