From 1989's Glory to 2012's Lincoln, there's no shortage of popular and lauded films about the American Civil War. While Gary Ross' historical drama/biopic Free State of Jones has both a rich premise and considerable acting talent, it lacks the grit and consistency that could have catapulted it into the ranks of this genre's greats.
The movie starts strong with several raw, bone-chilling battle scenes that depict the brutal nature of 19th century warfare. Confederate soldiers march sullenly over the bodies of their fallen brothers in arms; the camera lingers on visceral images of blown-out skulls and fly-ridden entrails. A haggard, bearded Matthew McConaughey enters the scene as little-known historical figure Newton Knight, a poor farmer and nurse in the Confederate forces who later becomes a deserter. In a shift from the horrors of war to Civil War-era medical horror, Knight drags a severely wounded soldier into a blood-soaked medical tent while screams and the sound of bone saws are heard in the background.
Not only does Knight witness both friends and strangers alike fall in battle, but he must also cope with the heartbreaking death of his young nephew, an event that pushes him to defect from the military. He hides himself from vengeful Confederate eyes in a swamp setting that feels both treacherous and strangely utopian, where he joins up with a group of escaped slaves. This milieu eventually becomes a haven for more Confederate deserters, whom Knight organizes into a band of rebels proclaiming that they want to be free from the political ideals of both the Confederacy and the Union. They go on to fight against greedy, bloodthirsty Confederate troops, and manage to capture three counties of Mississippi for themselves -- land that they declare to be the titular "Free State of Jones."
Although it starts off with a brutally realistic look at war, Free State of Jones unravels as Ross attempts to stuff too much into a film that clocks in at a whopping two hours and 19 minutes. The fluidity and pacing of the narrative are compromised by the inexplicable and arbitrary overuse of title cards, which convey information that could have been communicated via character dialogue. And the central romance between Knight and Rachel (the magnificent but underutilized Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave who becomes his second wife and the mother of his child, feels rushed and underdeveloped, despite the obvious chemistry between McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw.
As written, Knight seems too good to be true: A highly principled man who is also the perfect lover, friend, and father, he amounts to little more than an example of the white-savior archetype who haunts Hollywood historical dramas. However, the talented McConaughey brings a jaded authenticity to the role via his haunted eyes and heavy Southern drawl. Mbatha-Raw delivers a compelling and, at times, heartbreaking performance as Rachel, who transforms from an abused plantation slave to a literate, free woman. Mahershala Ali shines as Moses, a former slave whom Knight encounters when he firsts arrives in his swamp hideaway. Moses becomes Knight's best friend, but more crucially, he emerges as an important historical figure in his own right, a reformer who helps mobilize the Southern black community to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment.
In an attempt to spotlight both the long-term influence of Knight's actions and the lack of racial progress following the Civil War, the film occasionally jumps ahead in time by 85 years to check in on another story line. In these flash-forwards, Davis Knight, Newton Knight's mixed-race descendant, is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. Unfortunately, these time jumps are too infrequent to be interwoven with the main plot line about the Civil War; while it represents an important facet of Newton Knight's legacy, perhaps this court case should have been limited to a brief reference during the title cards at the end.
This movie has an interesting premise, and the filmmaking is powerful. However, the cast end up carrying the picture, which feels cobbled-together and tonally incongruous. By trying to combine a detailed biopic with a historical epic about America's deep-seated racism, Free State of Jones overextends itself and ultimately fails at both.