Friday, June 24

REVIEW: Free State of Jones

Directed by Gary Ross
2016 Biographical Drama
2 hours, 19 minutes
From STX Entertainment

Matthew McConaughey
Gugu Mabatha-Raw
Mahershala Ali
Keri Russell

It wasn't as bad as some would have you believe and it also could have been better.  The problem with this film is that it tried to tell too much and went too far afield. The core story was interesting by itself and could have been elaborated on, given some emotional drama, but my attention was diverted because the writers got diverted and in the end I felt all they had built upon was diluted.

For those unaware this is an American Civil War story.  It is said to be a true one although others have claimed it's a bit fanciful.  My partner's criticism was that there was nothing new here but I saw it a little differently.  Newton Knight lived in Mississippi and went to war as a Confederate nurse.  I never got that he was rah-rah Southern as much as he was a maverick and an obvious pioneer in human rights and dignities.  He came to fight the Confederacy with the same passion as the Union did.  Talk about a rebel.

He desserts his post because a family member has been killed and he wants him buried at home.  Bad as that decision was, it gets worse after he realizes that Confederate soldiers confiscate seemingly what they want from local farmers and sharecroppers.  It galls Newt no end to see friends and family lose some of their furnishings, livestock and livelihood.  

At the same time the married Newt's young son has an infection that a local black house slave, Rachel, is brought in to help ward off. She and Newt become fast friends and eventual lovers. With the law on his heels, he hightails it to a swamp where he runs into a group of runaway slaves.  He soon discovers that Rachel is involved in their plight.

The combination of the Confederacy's plundering and his emotional involvement with the ever-growing number of slaves is at the heart of the story. The ragtag group of marauders then becomes involved in one skirmish after another-- hangings, burnings, brutal killings-- that satisfies any lust for action.

The title may be better understood if it were called the Free State of Jones County. Jones and two other Mississippi counties wanted to secede from the union in 1861.  Newt is as anti-secession as he is anti-slavery.

The film would have been helped with more of the personal story, an emotional reading from Newt and each of his women.  Their dialogue seems to be strictly about the mayhem surrounding them; didn't anyone care to give them truly personal things to say?  We learn very little about either woman and that's too bad.  I liked the action but to be fully sated, I needed the emotions of interpersonal relationships.

During the course of laying out the story, we inexplicably jump years into the future and witness a trial involving the apparent son
of Newt and Rachel and the fact that he (who looks very white but obviously isn't) wants to marry a white woman, which is against the law.  This happened several distracting times and what was the point?

Worse, as the war ends, so should the movie have.  But it doesn't. It ventures into some awkward pacing and structuring of the Reconstruction Period, complete with newspaper accounts of the time, and jaggedly rushes through the history of events, most of which have nothing to do with Newt or the story we've been watching.

I suppose all the moralizing that came with this last part of the film was what appealed to McConaughey in the first place or it was later written for him.  The actor doesn't seem to have ever met a pulpit he didn't want to mount, spraying his pearls of knowledge over the disenfranchised.  To play Newt, he got to get dirty, smell dirty and stay dirty. Shampooing optional.  It was a dream role. Oh, I kid the scruffy Texas muffin, he fit the part just fine and dandy.

All the supporting actors turned in believable performances although no one stood out for special mention.  Everyone seemed to fit the part.  Major kudos to the hair, makeup and wardrobe departments for making these actors look so authentic.  It's been said that over 7,000 people submitted head shots to be able to be an extra in the large cast. 

Mostly filmed outdoors, there was a lovely rural look that helped keep my interest in good order.  

Included, of course, are some sobering scenes of carnage... amputations, hangings, shootings in the face, etc.  Be warned. 

Director Ross has turned out some fine films with Pleasantville, Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games but one cannot help but feel that writer Ross sabotaged the director's efforts here.

Next posting:
The Directors

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