Life free or die.
I’m a McConaughey guy. His surname is a bear to spell and that extended period where it was nothing but milquetoast romcoms on his CV could be quickly disposed of, but, on balance, I find the guy one of the more charismatic and accessible movie star working today. Add to that his turns in high-calorie stuff like True Detective and Interstellar and you’ve got yourself a legit movie star.
Which is why I was genuinely perplexed at the fate of his latest. The marketing for Free State of Jones seemed to indicate that this was going to be more-than-solid addition to his resume; a thinking-man’s action film, dropped in the middle of a brainless summer. Confederates getting ventilated, fugitive slaves and poor white folks banding together in a common cause, musket fire, explosions and various shenanigans in a swamp—sounds like a winner!
But mediocre-to-poor reviews and a blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run kneecapped Free State of Jones, rendering it a movie-going experience I soured on shelling out actual money for. But, like the main character, here’s a second chance for yours truly. Is the film truly that forgettable?
Yes. Yes it is.
Here’s the story: Newton Knight (McConaughey, Interstellar) is a Confederate soldier who’s lost interest in the bloodshed. Feeling less like he’s doing battle with Northern aggressors and more that he’s doing the bidding of a bunch of pampered, rich plantation owners, he high-tails it out of the army, emblazoning a fat DESERTER target on his back.
While eluding the probing eyes of the Confederacy in a nearby swamp, he runs across a group of escaped slaves. Their numbers increase when groups of farmers, forced out of their way of life, by the Confederate military industrial complex, join—and an oddball camaraderie is formed.
Fed up with his family’s and his neighbors’ plight, Knight sets up the Free State of Jones, a sovereign municipality in the heart of the South where everyone is welcome, providing of course, they have a worthy beard.
Needless to say, violence erupts between the Free Staters and external forces leading to the inevitable, flammable mixture of gun-toting and Constitutional jurisprudence.
The first thing to note is that, despite the trailers’ various insinuations, Free State of Jones is not an action movie. By any stretch. This is a straight historical drama, with a sprinkling of Civil War violence. You get like two set-pieces of consequence: a war scene in the beginning and a funeral ambush in opening parts of the final third. Beyond that, nothing.
As a period drama, Free State of Jones proves to be a meandering tale, shouldering some weighty material and plodding along at a glacial place. Clocking in just shy of two and a half hours, the film opts for the slow burn—to its own detriment. Frankly, not enough compelling matter is served up to us and the good stuff—the action, the character development with the Knight and the slaves—is buried under too much filler: endless monologues about how it sucks to have your corn taken away from you and the like.
McConaughey stands out and tries to single-handedly heft this bloated saga on his own, but he can say the same “who are they to push us around?” class warfare pep talks only so much.
This is all based on a true story (loosely, of course) and the production design is impressively authentic—but if you’re looking to be entertained versus bored and slightly depressed, then look elsewhere. The Free State of Jones just doesn’t make a convincing enough case that it’s worthy of a stay there.
The Blu-ray: a brilliant 1.85:1 1080 transfer joins a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix to create a top-shelf A/V treatment. Extras are limited, with just one featurette, The History of Jones County.
Authentically depressing and dull.