One of the most frustratingly mediocre films of the year so far, Gary Ross’ (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games) noble attempt to bring Newton Knight’s fascinating story to the big screen may benefit from another outstanding Matthew McConaughey performance, but flat direction and brutal pacing make it an absolute chore to power through.
Newton Knight (McConaughey) is a Confederate Army medic who, following the 1862 Battle of Corinth, deserts his post and returns home. Circumstances however eventually cause him to join a group of runaway slaves led by Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), ultimately leading an armed militia who take over a large chunk of south-east Mississippi which they subsequently dub the “Free State of Jones”.
Credit to Ross, he certainly kicks his film off in startling style, opening with a visceral depiction of the Battle of Corinth where one of the audience’s very first sights is a soldier with a hole blown in his face. The entire sequence is immensely harrowing and frames the rest of the movie, specifically Knight’s decision to desert the Army.
After this gripping opening, however, it settles down into a more repetitious rhythm, for while some historical context is absolutely needed, the extent to which Ross wants us to feel this time and place ultimately rings excessive, with countless plodding, unnecessary scenes padding the run-time out to an indecent 140 minutes. An awkward framing device which flashes forward 85 years to Knight’s great-great-great grandson is almost a complete waste of time. Title cards thrust higgledy-piggledy into the narrative also frequently disrupt the flow and give off a rather amateur whiff.
The presentation on the whole is in fact a little ropey; despite a hefty $50 million budget, talented DP Benoît Delhomme (The Proposition, The Theory of Everything) can rarely elevate the look above a TV-grade historical reconstruction. The palette is frequently washed-out and grotty, which while probably intentional, makes the pic incredibly dull to look at. Several scenes are also shot on a horrid digital camera that evokes the “Michael Mann effect”.
Even on its own terms, Ross’ direction is totally unfussed; shot selection is largely unimaginative and uninteresting, and the rather flat action sequences suggest Ross’ widely-criticised set-piece work on The Hunger Games wasn’t solely because of that pesky PG-13 rating forcing him to cut and shake around all the violence. With an R-rating that sees him focus intently on grisly injury, he has no such excuse this time.
Things do admittedly pick up significantly once that distended first act is done with, in large part thanks to McConaughey, who gives a performance that, with a stronger script and direction, probably could have snagged him an Oscar nomination. His impassioned speeches are transfixing, and he’s also got just enough of that signature sly charm to make him an agreeably charismatic figure. Other solid work comes from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a slave woman Knight falls in love with, and House of Cards star Ali playing ferociously determined slave leader Moses.
An exhausting experience though certainly not one without merit, Free State of Jones is a missed opportunity that might still be worth the sit for history buffs, but those hoping for an emotional response to the story probably won’t find the scattered rewards worth the considerable time investment.
Free State of Jones is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas September 30th