Free State of Jones, 2016.
Directed by Gary Ross.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Barry, Sean Bridgers, and Jacob Lofland.
As civil war divides the nation, a poor farmer from Mississippi leads a group of rebels against the Confederate army.
Free State of Jones doesn’t start out so bad; we get to see the horrors of war up close and personal with cannons blasting people away, leaving their brains spilled all over the ground (it is surprisingly some graphic content accurately portraying the aftermath of a battle), our protagonist Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) ia a medic pulling wounded soldiers off of the battlefield to get them help, limbs being amputated in tents, and generally the flick is intense.
Following that, not even 20 minutes into the movie we are hit with our first pivotal character death, and it all just falls flat. Likewise, after all the initial violence and mayhem, Free State of Jones begin slipping into a slumber that may as well be one of the most boring films on the Civil War, or any war for that matter, ever made. Director Gary Ross treats the movie like a glorified history lesson complete with shockingly amateur and inept filmmaking decisions at every corner.
Again, the actual battle scenes are great (both of them), and sort of make you wonder what he could have done with The Hunger Games‘ action sequences if Hollywood decided to stick more close to the novels and give him an R rating to work with. But something is wrong when title cards and random stock footage are popping up explaining footnotes of events going on, coming across as the usual typical affair for the ending of a historical drama, when in reality the movie is just beginning its third act and still has about 30 minutes to wade through.
To make matters worse, (aside from the fact that by this point you are already bored out of your mind, considering that the movie is just Matthew McConaughey doing good deeds and helping people for over two hours), there is no coherent direction on where to actually take the narrative. For a while it’s about ditching the Confederate Army and building a small utopia off in the Mississippi swamps for poor whites and slaves to live amongst each other in harmony, and then it becomes an absolute scattershot mess tackling everything from the KKK, Negroes getting the right to vote, and more subplots.
That is not even the worst of it though, as there is also a future story arc unfolding set in 1967 regarding the race of one of Newt’s children. Is he white or is he of mixed race? Truth be told, you won’t really give a damn because all of maybe five minutes of the entire movie (I’m actually being generous with that estimation) is actually spent going over this. The bigger issue is that it’s really not that interesting to begin with, so why is it even here in the first place? It isn’t adding anything to the movie at all. These scenes also highlight that the film is a nightmarish mess in terms of editing, as often one of the m will come up for all of 20 seconds out of nowhere and just end.
The story itself about Newt and what he accomplished is actually rather interesting, and something unfortunately not really mentioned in history classes, but the actual movie is in desperate search for a spark to generate some sort of interest and excitement. Yes, it’s terrible at these poor farmers and slaves are essentially tools of war, but none of the characters have anything to gravitate affection towards. Matthew McConnaughey is serviceable enough in the role of the hero, but it’s also just him in a rugged beard giving a calm yet angry performance with his usual mannerisms and acting trademarks.
It also needs to be mentioned that Free State of Jones is 139 minutes long, so the boredom will be real for a very, very long time. Factoring in the length, it’s not out of the question to say that this is one of the most boring movies of 2016, which is admittedly a shame because there was so much potential to birth a lasting peace of Civil War cinema. Everything about the movie is interesting but the movie itself. There are some nice sets and some decent acting, but the rest is all an insufferable experience that screams amateur hour. The only freedom here comes when the film finally ends and you can bolt for the exit door.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★