If the merits of a film set during the American Civil War were based solely on the technical contributions of the filmmakers, then Free State of Jones would surely rise to the top. The early battle scenes, graphic as they may be, underscore the horror of war in a way that we’ve certainly seen in many WWII films over the years but less often in films that probe deeper into the Civil War era. The scenes involving dismemberment of soldiers and such are gripping to be sure and there’s certainly no argument to be made on that count. Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) certainly has an undeniable flair for staging action sequences. It’s when the film’s story begins to unfold that the problematic side of the film begins to rear its head. Ross may be in command of the action but he’s yet to win me over in the storytelling department. Scenes involving the film’s more dramatic fireworks are, curiously, emotionally muted. You can feel the drama beginning to unfold and then Ross cuts away to the aftermath in individual scenes. As a result, the emotional catharsis that you expect as an audience member fails to materialize.
Free State of Jones is based, supposedly, on a true story. The gist of the tale is the curious one of Confederate soldier Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who makes the decision to lead an inside rebellion against the Confederacy after witnessing untold carnage while serving as a medic during the war. After he fails to save the life of a young draftee, Newt decides its better to lead the charge against the injustices he feels are being done at the hands of the Confederacy than continue in his present role. He enlists a group of renegade slaves in his quest and soon realizes that being a rebel carries its own price tag. Sandwiched in between the film’s main story are subplots involving Newt’s estrangement from his wife (Keri Russell) and his love affair with a slave. If that isn’t enough to keep up with, the film then zooms ahead 85 years and attempts to tie in another story involving the fate of Newt’s son who was a product of his love affair with the former servant. All of these subplots serve to saddle the film with a running time that’s at least forty minutes too long.
The film wears its heart on its sleeve at times and you have to give it credit for attempting to inject something new into the worn out genre of the Civil War film but there’s nothing really new to be seen here. Free State of Jones is the type of film that could have used some streamlining and, as a result, falls victim to its meandering nature.
Free State of Jones is playing in Hickory and around the area.
Photo: Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones
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