You can’t argue that the new movie Free State of Jones has been made in earnest, with plenty of good intentions and high ambitions. But all that can’t dismiss that the movie is structurally, narratively and ultimately ideologically, a complete mess of a movie from writer-director Gary Ross. Which is too bad, because Ross clearly has a lot (too much) he wants to say and do with this film, but all that’s lost because of its lack of clear and focused storytelling. Too bad, because I have no doubt that a movie about Newton Knight, the rebellion he led, the founding of a biracial community in the deep south, and the marriage trial of one of his descendants decades later would have made compelling stories…they just shouldn’t all be told in one crowded movie.
Matthew McConaughey plays Knight, and we first see him serving the confederacy as a nurse, already clearly disillusioned by the long war he says is being fought so rich slave owners can keep their cotton…especially when the law excusing slave owners of 20 or more is passed. The death of a young boy from his home in Jones send him packing as a deserter, and he returns to a farm town without a single man and women forced to give up their crops to soldiers. An attempt to help a town’s woman and his status as a deserter makes him a wanted man, and when injured by a “slave dog” he hides out with several escaped slaves…ultimately hatching plans to make their swampy area a refugee for others like himself, tired of serving the confederacy.
The movie honestly starts out well enough and shows some of Ross’s technical skills. He shows considerable carnage in the war scenes (more than you would expect from the director of the first Hunger Games film), and creates a visceral reaction that shows the horrors of war. And the idea of McConaughey’s character returning to an almost empty home town provides an eerie, western sense to the movie. And had the film maintained that sense throughout, I can see a movie which could have been carved out.
The problem is, almost every “journey” McConaughey takes feels like it is being told from a different directorial approach, but there’s no logic in how all these tie together. Ross goes from ultra-realistic, to dreamy, to classical, to cinema verite…but rarely do we feel there was an academic reason for changing his style beyond trying to show range in a 2 and 1/2 hour movie. Ross also drops that graphic detail we see at the beginning, making the battles of the rebels far more about glory and thrills; a terrible decision for a director who clearly wanted movie violence to have a deeper meaning. And when I say there’s a flash-back, yes, there is a flash-back which happens completely abruptly, like a scene accidentally cut into the movie, but never used as an actual framing device. The “character” of Newt’s great-grandson (I honestly don’t know his name) is barely a character, and we never know if his own family tree makes any difference to how he sees himself. The device feels thrown in almost to appease any still living descendants who might see these two events as comparable moments of family honor.
Because Ross tries to tell so much, there is a lack of focus that not only causes confusion but significantly damage’s Ross’s admirable attempts to address the U.S. history of slavery and racism in a new and profound way. He focuses considerable attention on showing where Knight exists in documented history, like a student citing his research. But he also wants Knight to be seen as a contemporary hero disenchanted by the one percent and war for oil (honestly, a lot of these speeches felt inspired by the German soldiers in “All Quiet on the Western Front”). And when you have both these desires competing, and he wants to make what is essentially an epic biopic, the movie becomes a plotting mix of speeches and re-staging of history. The movie feels almost like a miniseries Ross had to cut down and turn into a film, but found everything in that first outline too precious to cut, so he short-changed everything.
Which is too bad, because I can see where a focus on Knight and his rebels, and their insurgent fights, could have made for a tight, compelling (possible even fun) film. But only if we’d been given stronger characters and really focused on then and now’s complicated relationship with race. Mahershala Ali (“House of Cards”) is excellent as runaway slave Moses, who should essentially be of higher rank than Knight as the leader at the swamp. But Ross chooses to cut and move the story forward so we have no idea how or why the impact Knight’s rise to leader had when they began to bring more and more white deserters to their swamp. But this is bypassed and there is a sense from Ross that this community isn’t just harmonious…but that tension or discomfort had been practically nonexistent.
Part of me can understand Ross and the filmmakers desire to tell the story this way, as it is true that most of those who fought in the confederacy were not themselves slave owners (most of the people in the south weren’t slave owners). But that doesn’t mean that racism taught in that time didn’t result in racists or racist behavior, even from poor people. Even a film like Glory, which tells the story of a white union officer and the black soldiers he led, addressed that even a white liberal abolitionist might still have preconceived ideas about race that could cause initial tension. Just last year we had the fictional film The Keeping Room which told the story of two white sisters, poor farmers, who realized how different their lives were from a woman who used to be a slave. Yes, both may have hard lives, both exist in a world built on hierarchy that keeps them at the bottom…but the constant comparisons made by Knight, claiming the status of poor white farmers and slaves are comparative, feels like a step to far for a man presented so clearly as our hero so often beyond reproach.
Ali is excellent, and it’s too bad that he has such few moments where he is essentially the focus of the film…because I would have been more interested in seeing this story from his perspective. But Moses’s life experiences are too often presented as something Knight must experience or witness. Even in death, we are supposed to be moved by how Knight reacts to a loss…not the character’s loss. And this is true of all the “supporting characters” who are treated more or less as pawns in the film, to give Knight people to react to; Keri Russell, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, and especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, a “house slave” when we meet her, who is almost immediately introduced as Knight’s lover in that flash-forward I mentioned. For nearly an hour you are aware of the inevitable relationship (another reason the flash-forward makes no sense), further defining her in terms of her connection to “our hero.” And while she heals, saves, and steals for others, we learn far too little about her life and the risks she’s putting herself in. When Knight declares the rights of his free men of Jones, she stands right behind him smiling…and yet there is a complete lack of irony from Ross that not one soldier would consider fighting for the equality of this woman fighting for them.
15 years ago, Victoria Bynum wrote this “forgotten” part of civil war history in the book “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War”, with a focus on the roles played by slaves and women. This is clearly not an adaptation of that book, because Ross has chosen to take the more traditional “great white man’s” perspective. And that approach might have been alright if Knight were a complex and interesting character worthy of such focus. But he’s not, which is part of the reason this focus feels like a pandering desire to appeal to white audiences tired of feeling bad when asked to revisit slavery’s past. But the story of slavery’s history remains and there’s still room to tell it and remember it for the horror it was, as we just saw with TV’s “Roots” and “Underground”. Free State of Jones feels like the movie we would have seen if it had focused on Brad Pitt’s character in the 12 Years a Slave; a good man with an honorable story, but the wrong man to focus on for this story.