Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Bill Tangradi, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Thomas Francis Murphy, Jacob Lofland
Rated R for Brutal Battle Scenes and Disturbing Graphic Images
The problem with "Free State of Jones" isn't what's on screen, it's what isn't. The film has all the evidence of being a workable (if unspectacular) film, but the editing appears to have been done with a meat cleaver. Subplots are raised and dropped with alarming frequency, characters appear and disappear at random, and the film (the second half in particular) is an unfocused mess. Still, the performances are effective and the battle scenes are assembled well.
Newt Knight (McConaughey) is a nurse in the Confederate army. He cares enough for his patients that he will claim that they are of a higher rank than they actually are so they will see the doctor first. When a neighbor boy (Lofland) is killed in battle, he becomes disillusioned and deserts. He hides out in a swamp near home but finds that he has not escaped the war. The Confederate soldiers are stealing food and supplies from simple farmers under the guise of a "10% taxation." He, some former slaves and deserters form a successful rebellion. Word spreads around and he draws more followers to his cause. However, even with the surrender at Appomattox, his battle isn't over.
Writer/director Gary Ross has a lot he wants to say with this movie, but rarely finds a way to do it. The most successful point he makes directly applies to today's economic reality. They've realized that they're fighting and dying in a war for the super rich. They're all too poor to own slaves and yet anyone who own certain amounts of slaves can get their kids out of the war. Simply put, they're fighting a war for people like the rich plantation owner nearby whose only stake in the war is financial.
Less successful are his attempts to deal with racism. The issue is hardly raised when it's the most interesting time, and when it is raised, it's hammered home with little subtlety. It would be effective as filmed had these scenes been better set up.
Which, of course, leads me to my biggest criticism: too much in too little time. There is a wealth of story material here. Almost enough for a miniseries, actually. But it's been crammed into a running time of a little more than two hours. A more judiciously pruned screenplay, or a running time that could accommodate the material, would have served the film better.
The performances are effective, but not especially memorable. Matthew McConaughey is uneven. He's his usual low-key self, which is an asset in the quieter moments. But when he's speaking to a crowd of his supporters, it's difficult to believe that this guy could have inspired him to do anything no matter what he said. He could have used a little bit of Mel Gibson from "Braveheart." Gugu Mbatha-Raw is quite good as Rachel, a slave (?) turned lover for Newt. They have no chemistry, but Mbatha-Raw is the best thing in the movie. Everyone else fills their roles appropriately, although special mention has to go to Bill Tangrandi, whose character Lt. Barbour is slimy enough to make us wish for his horrible death within a minute of appearing on screen.
There is a lot to like about this movie. There are also a lot of things to dislike about the movie. Unfortunately the latter outweighs the former. Hopefully there will be a director's cut. Now that will be something I would pay to see.