I think the easiest joke I can make is: “THE PATRIOT… but Civil War.” I mean, am I wrong? His son dies right there in the trailer! Whatever, I like Matthew McConaughey! He’s a great actor who has evolved from his youthful days of bad romcoms into a credible actor doing some damn fine films. But enough about that, I have to say… yeah, I kinda wanted to see this movie after watching the trailer. It still looked a tad predictable, but still enjoyable. Not gonna lie though, I had a hard time swallowing this “Confederate soldier fighting with black people” pill. But that’s probably one of the highlights of the story, about how this man who used to think a certain way learns that we’re all the same deep down. Wow… that was schmaltzier than I thought it’d be. Okay, that’s not what I want out of this movie now. But regardless I’m interested. But was the fight for freedom and equality going down in the history books, or was this just Oscar bait that even Youtube would forget? This is my honest opinion of FREE STATE OF JONES.
Based on a true story. During the American Civil War, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) survives a battle against the Union. Unfortunately, he loses his oldest son in the fight. Unable to care for the war anymore, he returns home as a deserter to bury his son. Not long later, he hears word of how a local farm is being ransacked by Confederate soldiers unfairly and decides to teach the woman and her daughters to defend their home. The soldiers return and leave, but swear to bring justice upon him. They do eventually return and Newton is injured by a dog. He’s found by a local woman who hides him in a nearby swamp, along with some runaway slaves. Soon, Newton starts teaching these men to fight against the Confederates. Success reaches out to other local farms and join his cause in fighting the South’s armies until the end of the war. But is freedom really freedom in this country that is divided, whether or not there’s a war going on?
While I am endlessly grateful that the movie went in a direction that I couldn’t predict, it does feel a little… disjointed. Depending on who you are, this might be a good thing. For the price of one ticket, you get three movies. In this two and a half hour historical piece, there are three stories going on. The first is the Civil War stuff where most of the marketing makes you believe the movie is about. The second is after the war and we get the seeds of living in a post Civil War America where black people and whites who supported blacks are treated with hostility and violence. The final story is a rather clumsily added flashforward bit about a great grandchild of Newton that has black (the ethnicity, not the color… in case my grammar was abhorrent) blood in him, which means he can’t marry the white woman he’s in love with. These moments are so incredibly out of place that I thought another movie was spliced over this one.
I almost feel like this movie should have been its own kind of trilogy. The Civil War stuff is interesting, the post war stuff is interesting, hell, if we had more development time with the flashforward scenes, I’m sure those would be interesting. But slammed together, you have a movie that’s probably an hour too long and development ends up lacking in other areas. Having the Civil War and post war stories might have worked if this was more of a special on the history channel, as this movie does feel like it’s more concerned with informing us about what happened, rather than why or having us really emotionally invested. In retrospect, the movie could have delivered exactly what the trailers promised, and audiences would have been thoroughly pleased. The trailers almost suggest that the entire movie is just about Newton organizing farmers’ wives and even children to rebel against the Confederacy. That is exactly what you get for the first hour and a half. But as soon as the war ends and the South is reintegrated into the North, the move just completely shifts gears and talks about the early years of segregation and racism. Very different subject matter. I know this movie wants to talk about this man and his incredible accomplishments and all that, but if we can get sequels, prequels, and whatever else, a film series about this historical event isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
The unfortunate disadvantage of this movie, and I’m not even sure if it’s the movie’s fault, but a lot of the slower scenes, particularly in bayou toward the first half hour, the characters talk incredibly quietly. If this is supposed to be a set of scenes to establish character or anything, it was not shot very well because I couldn’t understand a single thing anyone was saying. Again, it’s entirely possible that the auditorium I was in simply had its volume down too low, but once the action scenes start kicking in, it’s loud and ironically I can hear the characters just fine. So when you have a quiet scene with characters talking under their breath, it translates into “boring.” And there are quite a few of these boring scenes, making the movie pretty slow. At an hour and a half in, I was ready to clock out and go to the next movie. But it just keeps going with storylines that aren’t as exciting to watch. If you want to make a period movie about racism post war, great, more power to you. But keep it separate from the other story you’re trying to tell.
God, I feel like I’m ranting in circles here, but that is the ultimate downside of the movie is that it’s throwing three stories at you when and it really hurts the film in my opinion. But I don’t want to harp on the movie too much as there are good things in it.
For one, McConaughey is actually pretty legit here. You see the eyes of a man who doesn’t want to fight a war that he doesn’t believe in and I really do believe his performance. Maybe I don’t know why Newton simply ups and marries a black woman when he did have a wife and child before going into hiding only to be reunited some years later… and all living under the same roof, which would have been interesting grounds to develop on, but that sort of just happens… but I like I said, McConaughey is really good despite that.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is actually really engaging as well as Rachel. In fact, she probably has the best character arch in the entire movie. Rachel starts off as a standard house slave with some skill in medical practice, but as per usual of the black community back then, she couldn’t read well and would occasionally sneak in some reading lessons from her masters as they teach their children. But over time during her time with Newton, Rachel learns how to read, and even fight in battles. If you think about that, she’s a black woman who was basically a war veteran. How accurate this is, I sure haven’t the foggiest idea, but if it is true… respect, girl. If it’s not true, don’t tell me because the badassery is too awesome and I don’t want it ruined. And after being a war vet, she winds up teaching kids how to read as well. She’s about the only character that feels like she went places in her life. This is Mbatha-Raw’s best role to date in my opinion.
The movie is far from perfect. It’s way too long and should have been chopped up into three movies instead of one long one. But what saves it from being bad is the core cast. McConaughey maintains his stance as an A-list actor in my book, but Mbatha-Raw is such an absolute scene-stealer, I might go so far as to say that I wish the movie was about her. I sure don’t hate the movie, but I do have to say, “viewer beware.” It’s a long movie. You will feel the length well before it ends. But it is an interesting story and you’ll want to see where it goes, but this is probably the first time that I say wait for it to come out on Netflix or Redbox. You’ll definitely need to use the pause button and take a break from it as it progresses. But it’s not a bad movie, it’s just a lot to watch and process.
My honest rating: 3/5
- THE NEON DEMON