Newton Knight was a poor Mississippi farmer and Confederate soldier who deserted the Army in early 1862, waged a rebellion against the Confederacy and ended up forming a little colony of exiles, which they referred to as the Free State of Jones.
Their numbers rose with deserters as the Confederate effort floundered. They even took over Jones County and raised an American flag at the courthouse. It’s a fascinating slice of forgotten history. Coming after three years after “12 Years a Slave” made sure we’d never forget the name Solomon Northup, it’s not unreasonable to expect that maybe “Free State of Jones “ could do that for Newton Knight or his fellow rebels.
The film might teach you the name Newton Knight (played by a scruffy, gaunt and almost feral Matthew McConaughey), but it is far too sprawling and too unfocused to be placed in the canon of forgotten Civil War-era stories alongside “12 Years a Slave.”
This tale follows Newt from his last days in the service to his near-accidental establishment of a rogue state in a swamp as the war rages on, all the way to emancipation and reconstruction. If 14 years sounds like a lot of territory to cover, it is, and the movie takes its time doing so, running nearly two and a half hours. And yet it still feels hurried.
It begins promisingly enough, with the requisite war is hell reminder — fast-cutting between horrific injuries on the battlefield and then in an overrun makeshift hospital. Newt grudgingly participates, mostly by helping the wounded, but then something happens that rattles him personally and he heads home to his wife Serena (Keri Russell, looking very concerned) and their young child. Things are bleak there, too, where Confederate soldiers regularly rampage homes and take anything they might need and want — corn, livestock, blankets — for the war effort. There’s also the deplorable “Twenty Slave Law” which allows members of the Confederacy to opt out of conscription if they provide 20 slaves. It’s a law that benefits only the rich and that is not lost on Newt or his poor friends, none of whom own slaves or support the Confederate cause either.
Being a deserter, Newt’s mere presence endangers everyone. Serena even packs up the kid and leaves. When they literally send the dogs after him, he retreats to the swamp where he meets some runaway slaves, and they begin to grow their community. It’s here where things get a little murky and rushed.
Director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”) wants badly to present a lyrical epic, and there are some moments of grace, but mostly it’s just labored, propelled only by the passage of time, pages worth of printed exposition on the screen and the hope that Newt’s journey is a good enough engine. And yet with all of those years covered, Newt is as defined as vapor, and his supporting characters even less so.
There’s also a jarring cut early on to a trial in 1948 in Mississippi where one of Newt’s decedents is suspected of having African American ancestry, despite looking white. While you get used the back and forth, it doesn’t ever drum up the suspense of a courtroom drama or achieve its intended poignancy.
Newt does in fact take up with Rachel (a powerful, if underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former house slave to a plantation owner. The question being asked in 1948 is whether or not they had any kids, thus starting a line of mixed race ancestors. It’s certainly an interesting thread, that this fight could continue so many generations after the war, but as with most things here, in execution it’s just more pasta thrown at the wall.
Rachel is one of the more compelling characters in the film, as is Moses (Mahershala Ali), who we meet with steel claws around his neck and see progress into a true protest leader by the time the war is over when, despite emancipation, little has changed for the former slaves and actually seems to be getting worse.
The Civil War and reconstruction were messy, and “Free State of Jones” wants to tackle it all. In the end, it’s too much for any one film to handle compellingly with such specificity.
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