“A beautifully told and captured story”

by Steve Pulaski

The opening scenes of Free State of Jones makes for a very tough sit, even if you are a seasoned moviegoer or an avid war-film enthusiast. Brutal sequences of soldiers getting shot, dying upon gunfire, or succumbing to their wounds go on for about two minutes, and scenes that follow in low-grade, unsanitary nurses’ stations aren’t much easier to stomach. Blood-soaked dressings are hung to dry, soldiers wallow in pain as they witness themselves lose an eye or a limb, and the entire opening ten minutes is a cacophony of agony.

It’s a cacophony that writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, the original Hunger Games) refuses to sugarcoat and ignore. For this film, he assumes an unusually stagnant, focused directorial style, unburdened by any kind of unsteady camera work or odd, canted framing. Ross’s directorial style here greatly reminds me of John Singleton’s in “Rosewood,” a film about the devastating 1923 Rosewood massacre – he essentially operates on a large canvas and is free to roam and depict it as he chooses.

The film revolves around Newton Knight, played brilliantly and conservatively by Matthew McConaughey, in yet another mannered, career-making performance, only making it like his sixth or seventh now. Knight is a poor Mississippi farmer, who winds up leading a revolutionary of over one-hundred farmer and local slaves against the Confederacy in Jones County, a county that has been robbed by taxes and torn apart by segregation in the early 1860s. Knight’s community winds up establishing its ground amidst a swamp-land, making access difficult for members of the Confederacy, and prides it on its own acceptance for blacks. One of them is Moses (Mahershala Ali), a local slave who winds up becoming Knight’s closest companion, in addition to Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Knight’s future wife, who works as a house-slave and supplies Knight’s village with what they need in terms of goods and artillery.

Free State of Jones
Directed by
Gary Ross
Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Release Date
24 June 2016
Steve’s Grade: B

There are certainly a lot of ostensible inevitabilities with Free State of Jones we’ve come to expect as a result of the textbook formula and approach of most historical dramas, especially those from centuries ago. The film looks and operates like an HBO miniseries, especially with how it introduces several characters and can’t always find a way to incorporate them or meaningfully tell their entire stories. That’s where the on-screen text, which serves as the contrasting “telling” to the film’s “showing” so that lengthier, more intricate stories can be summarized on-screen. Admittedly, this is a tactic that’s kind of bizarre, especially during one particular court sentence where instead of the judge uttering the result, text appears on-screen, interjecting itself into the scene, to tell us.

Free State of Jones succeeds in the way it winds up making a story of a particular man both interpretative in its approach and powerful in the way that man is portrayed. There are problematic undertones to the life of Newton Knight in terms of existing and operating during the controversial Confederacy, but those problems aren’t so much masked as they are shifted in focus to look at a bolder, more realized picture, which was Knight’s early opinion on and approach to integration. On top of that, McConaughey plays a terrific Knight as he’s captured through uncommonly realistic Civil War-era settings and costume design with stellar cinematography in way of beautiful long/medium-shots and intimate closeups (consider when Knight is threatening one of the Confederacy members with a knife to his neck after robbing all of “their” corn) by BenoĆ®t Delhomme.

Free State of Jones is ultimately a film to embrace as a beautifully told and captured story with a thoroughly entertaining central performance.