A little-known and thought-provoking slice of Civil War arcana gets the full Hollywood treatment in “Free State of Jones.”
Too bad it rarely rises above the level of a well-staged history lesson.
Written and directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey, this long (2 hours, 19 minutes) epic is a Southern-fried melding of “Robin Hood” and “Spartacus.”
McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a real-life Mississippian who comes to believe he and his fellow poor whites are dying in the war for a system that enriches only wealthy slave owners.
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Going AWOL from the Confederate army, Newton returns to his native Jones County, joining other fugitives — escaped slaves and army deserters — in an impregnable swamp.
Infuriated by the depredations of Confederate quartermasters stripping struggling farmers of their grain and meat and leaving them to starve, these renegades launch raids on the raiding parties, distributing the foodstuffs back to the folks who planted them.
Eventually this rebellion against the rebellion leads to pitched battles pitting Confederate troops against free blacks and angry farmers waving the Union flag.
At war’s end Knight and his ragged rabble declare themselves a sovereign nation — the Free State of Jones — with its own constitution.
But Knight’s ahead-of-their-time political views are no match for the ugliness of Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the ascendency of the same monied swells who got him so riled in the first place.
Ross (“The Hunger Games,” “Seabiscuit”) delivers several action set pieces — a big Civil War battle and smaller skirmishes between Knight’s guerrillas and the regular army — and he gives McConaughey many speeches about freedom, the equality of the races and other topics (the 1 percent!!!) that fall pleasantly on 21st-century ears.
But while it captures the sweep of history, “Free State of Jones” never comes alive as drama. It’s a one-man show.
Basically we have McConaughey’s Newton Knight and, well, that’s about it.
All the other characters are one-dimensional conveniences: his fellow white deserters (Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers), the former slave (Mahershala Ali) who becomes his best friend, his first wife (Keri Russell) and the black woman he eventually settles down with (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
It’s Knight who does all the talking, who makes everything happen.
Periodically the film zips 70 years into the future, where Knight’s great-grandson is on trial for violating Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws, having married a white woman while having one-eighth or more African blood. It’s an interesting historical footnote, but it adds little to the main story.
It’s not that McConaughey is bad here. He has diligently worked to enter the mindset of a 19th-century man and to strip all telltale Matthew-isms from his performance.
Plus the film’s depiction of the wartime South feels just right: dangerous, dirty, desperate.
Problem is, “Free State of Jones” teases the intellect but rarely engages the emotions.
It’s a heck of a story. If only it moved us more.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘Free State of Jones’
Rated R. Time: 2:19.