It’s not even that Free State of Jones is bad. It’s just that the film seems belong on TV as a miniseries rather than a movie.
Directed by Gary Ross, this 140-minute historical drama details the life of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) as he goes through a pivotal period of his life. After becoming frustrated with his role in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Knight deserts his company and returns home to find that the Confederate government has been stealing from the townspeople. From there, he forms and leads his own militia to rebel against the Confederate Army (though never associating with the Union), eventually creating his own ‘free state’ and remarrying a former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). This is juxtaposed by a courtroom drama nearly a century later as Newton Knight’s grandson discovers that he is 1/8 black, and therefore must have his marriage annulled due to segregation laws.
There is a lot within the film that works. The problems here come from, much like the Civil War itself, a contrast between two different ideas. The movie struggles with numerous questions, such as: Is the tone of the film more of a melodrama or a historical fiction? Is the main focus of the movie surrounding rebellion or rights? And perhaps most importantly, is the ultimate result of this story one of a white savior or the invention of whiteness? This last question is most interesting because it determines if the movie is ultimately progressive or naïve. On one hand, this is a story about a white dude who gets frustrated and decides to free the slaves. On the other hand, this is a story about a man overcoming part of his privilege and attempting to dissolve the cultural power dynamic between whites and blacks. As a white dude, I’m not really qualified to answer this last question, but I will say that the movie doesn’t take a strong stand either way. It could be used as a teaching tool for good, but there needs to be accompanying readings. Perhaps the ultimate problem is that, although there were numerous historical consultants, the film was written and directed by a pair of white dudes, and so desperately needs a different perspective.
This lack of a commitment also carries over to the movie’s structure. The film is long. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, the movie covers a lot of ground, but drags its feet along the way. It’s obvious that there was quite a bit of ambition to make this movie epic and layered, but in the end it feels more tired and clichéd. That’s not to say that it’s boring though. No moment is ever too tedious, and the plot moves at a relatively fast pace. The issue is that because there are so many different plot points to be covered, the sense of time and self is completely lost within the film. It’s not terribly interesting, but it’s also not terribly dull. Maybe that’s why it feels like it belongs on television.
Ever since the fabled ‘McConaissance’ that began in the 2010s, McConaughey has been exploring a lot of wild, captivating and unique roles to somehow turn him from a stereotypical leading man to one of the most engrossing actors in Hollywood. The ironic thing is that as his performances have gotten more critic-friendly, he’s lost that sort of leading man charm. Even in some of his recent leading roles, he’s had someone to be his partner, or gimmick to help push the film forward. What I’m saying is that Free State of Jones is the first film since The Lincoln Lawyer (the first movie of the ‘McConaissance’) to truly need McConaughey’s support to carry the film. It also has become apparent that Matthew McConaughey isn’t the person to do this job. He’s still in a magical period of creative growth, but I’d like to see a lot more movies where he has just a little less screen time.