Review: Free State of Jones

It’s been a resurgent couple of years for American period pieces. Stories of slavery and, reinterpretations of traditional Western tropes have had a prominent presence on the screen and at award season. From Django: Unchained (two Oscars) to The Revenant (three Oscars) and 12 Years A Slave (three Oscars), these films are proving a popular peek into America’s dark past. In comparison, Free State of Jones has a tough time standing out when compared to these recent releases.

The story follows Confederate States Army nurse and deserter Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) as he forms the titular Free State of Jones, an ‘accepts-all’ band of displaced citizens and freed or runaway slaves that form a rebellion in the face of Confederate cruelty. The film jumps from the inception of the Free State to the story of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, 85 years after the war, who is of one-eighth black descent and is on trial for marrying a white woman, all based on true events.

While the story of Newton’s descendant is interesting, as it sets the tone for how slow and laborious the march to progress is, it often pulls away from the tense and engaging tone of Newton’s guerrilla warfare. The conclusion to this story is especially rushed in the final scenes, leaving the story feeling unfinished.

Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones.
Scene from the film, not a Civil War themed fun-run.

McConaughey’s performance is excellent as would be expected, and naturally much of the focus has fallen on him, however, the entire cast wonderfully help to recreate the world of 1860s America and keep it rich and engaging. Despite this, there is something missing from the entire piece, a certain lack of distinction and memorability in terms of story. The movie tries to shrug this off by facing the violence and horrors of the time head on, and viscerally; but it pales in comparison to the gritty realism of The Revenant or the almost camp violence of Django: Unchained.

The cinematography is tremendous, with certain scenes really drawing out the beauty of the green, alien-like landscape of Mississippi’s swamps and stretches of dry scrub-land. The action, a large part of the film, is shot well and paced to draw us into the rush of battle while still being clear on what is actually happening.

Free State of Jones brings light to an obscure and interesting piece of American history in a well-rounded and solid way, however standing against films that tell a similar story of American violence and racial oppression such as The Revenant and Selma, the delivery feels a little flat. A fascinating story with a finished product that just doesn’t seem to be able to outperform others it should hope to compete with.

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Free State of Jones is in cinemas from September 30.

Conor O’Doherty

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