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Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones

Released 30 September 2016
Director Gary Ross

Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy
Writer(s) Gary Ross

Jon Kilik, Gary Ross, Scott Stuber
Origin United States
Running Time 139 minutes
Genre Action, biography, drama
Rating 15A

Guerrilla tactics.

Free State of Jones is an illuminating, well-intentioned look at a shameful period of the history of the United States – a period that may have been glossed over in many accounts of the Civil War. It is also a peculiarly muddled and uneven affair that starts strong but meanders a great deal in its storytelling. Nobody could question director Gary Ross' sincerity but where it succeeds as a piece of history, it falls down slightly as a piece of filmmaking.

The film concerns a man named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate soldier during the American Civil War who became disillusioned with the death and injustice wrought by the powerful in society against the weak. He flees the battlefield and becomes a wanted deserter. With the help of a young slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Knight finds a home in the swamps among other wanted souls, including several runaway slaves. As more and more people join their ranks in the swamp, Knight leads a guerrilla campaign against the corrupt Confederate forces.

The film begins with a scene that is truly startling. We enter a battlefield as one force marches towards another – soldiers are picked off one by one, yet the ranks keep on marching to their certain death. Ross pulls no punches in his depiction of the bloody horror of conflict in a scene that acts as a sharp jolt to the system. This depiction of brutality, inequality and man's inhumanity to man is what the film does best. McConaughey makes for an excellent partner to Ross in this endeavour – his by now well-practiced Southern grit and charisma are perfect for portraying a man who managed to lead a rebellion against insurmountable forces.

Over the course of the film though, the narrative begins to meander in a way that lessens the impact of the events that come later. Ross is perhaps attempting to give breathing room to a complex piece of American history but more thought should have been given to the pacing. That being said, I'm glad I saw Free State of Jones; it is a well-acted, sincere piece of filmmaking.

- Linda O'Brien