As someone who loves learning about history and movies about history I was really looking forward to “The Free State of Jones”. The story of “The Free State of Jones” is an oddly overlooked story in both Civil War history and American History. The story being about an angry farmer serving in the Confederate army named Newton Knight. Knight deserts the army after being disgusted by new laws in the south that favor the rich and hurt the poor. Attempting to stay out of jail for desertion Knight retreats to the swamps where a growing number of escaped slaves and deserting soldiers join him. Soon the numbers grow large enough where Knight leads this group against the Confederate armies in the south attempting to start a free state of Jones.
That type of story I haven’t really seen told on the big screen before. And high school history never seems to cover this area of the Civil War so I’m not very well read on the subject matter. Of course I did more research after the fact because the story is so interesting. But the problem with “The Free State of Jones” is just that it’s a very interesting story but as movie is only that, interesting; it doesn’t work as a whole. There are a number of things that work and a number of things that don’t. I think the movie is worth seeing for its historical importance but if we’re judging this as a movie it doesn’t reach as high as the potential this movie really had.
One of the main issues with “The Free State of Jones” is focus. The movie doesn’t know what it wants to focus on. The movie is called “The Free State of Jones” but it spends so little time on the actual moment of the Free State of Jones that it doesn’t feel like an appropriate title really. The movie time spans between the years 1862 to 1876. And at the same time has a subplot that is occurring 80 plus years from the year 1862 with one of Knight’s descendants (Davis Knight) being accused of breaking Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws because Wayne Knight in the past fathered a child with a former slave. So, that makes Davis Knight close enough being African American for segregation laws to be implemented. Yeah, this movie has a lot going on in it.
With a lot going on the movie feels like it’s a series of moments rather than a free flowing story. There isn’t a lot that connects together thematically or as a narrative. Some moments get repetitive and others drag out. There could have been a lot that could have been taken out of this movie (namely the subplot in 20th century American). “Free State of Jones” makes the mistake that many biopics make in trying to cover as much “historical ground” and moments. With that structure the moments feel like a check on a checklist than something that feels meaningful to the overall story.
I don’t want to sound like this movie had nothing to offer because it certainly does. There isn’t anything really bad in the movie (well except the court room scenes). Everything is well staged and directed by Gary Ross. Ross I think is an underappreciated director in the current movie going scene. I really liked what he did with “The Hunger Games” and he has made one of the most overlooked movies of all time, “Pleasantville” (anytime I can bring that movie up I try too). Ross does a fine job with his direction here. The setting feels authentic and the performances are really good (especially by Matthew McConaughey). The opening battle sequence feels the most authentic, intense and gritty Civil War battle sequence ever put to screen (or at least in recent memory). It had a bit of the “Saving Private Ryan” feel to it. It doesn’t have the same impact as that movie but the tone reminded me of it.
Of course where Ross stumbles is not keeping the intensity up. The rest of the battles felt routine and mundane in comparison to the opening. Parts of it started to remind me of “The Patriot”. I enjoy that film but from the beginning of “Free State of Jones” it’s not what I wanted to see.
Once the “Free State” sequence happens (when Knight Company declares their land as free from the south) the movie sort of just meanders looking for a purpose. There is an entire section of the movie that takes place during the Reconstruction Era. The section is once again interesting but I kept waiting for its purpose to be shown. And like a lot of moments in this movie it never really arrived. Eventually the movie just ends wrapping things up on an anti climatic note. I don’t think the filmmakers knew exactly where they were going either. And as the running time pressed on the length was beginning to show itself.
Again to be fair there is a lot of good individual scenes in the movie. The opening scene for instance I thought was signaling the arrival of something special. But it was not to be. I think there is plenty to like in the movie but if I saw it again I would want to skip around to certain parts rather than sit through the entire epic again; simply because “The Free State of Jones” doesn’t work as one entire movie with a narrative through line. Matthew McConaughey is incredible in this movie as are some of the other performances. The potential was there and it didn’t reach it. The historical significance alone is reason enough to see the movie. But, don’t expect a perfect experience only a mixed bag.