If you’ve been waiting to see Matthew McConaughey play a badass, Free State of Jones could be the movie for you. A historical Civil War drama may not have been where you expected to see McConaughey take an action hero role, but his performance as Newton Knight could certainly be viewed that way.
Some may feel that McConaughey already got his badass on by playing Rust Cohle in True Detective or even hitman Joe Cooper in 2011’s Killer Joe. Those characters were certainly antiheroes with a either a warped sense of justice or twisted idea of how to make a living. But were they as ruthless as Knight in Free State of Jones? Perhaps this is recency bias talking, and I would be happy to be corrected on this, but I don’t recall a McConaughey character choosing to kill a character by choking him rather than shooting him because it’s a more punishing way to mete out vengeance.
It’s actually a bit shocking, considering Knight is held up as a historical hero in this movie, though not a perfect one. (And there are plenty of people in Confederate country who don’t view Knight as a hero and probably won’t like the story that’s told here.) But maybe more so because it’s McConaughey choking the guy out. Perhaps this was the next natural step from the contemplative loner driving his Lincoln around the city.
But Free State of Jones isn’t like a Charles Bronson vigilante flick set during the Civil War. It begins like a Civil War version of Saving Private Ryan, with the horror and gore of armed conflict on full display. Heads explode from bullet and cannon fire. Entrails pour out of torsos onto the terrain. Limbs are either completely blown off or amputated by medics. It’s bloody, bloody stuff, a side of the Civil War which you don’t typically see in a re-enactment, and a good way to push you back into your seat as a viewer.
However, this isn’t just a war film either. A key part of Knight’s story is that he deserted the Confederate Army, dismayed by fighting and watching people die — notably his nephew, Daniel — for a cause they didn’t believe in and an authority that took advantage of people with little means for its own gain. Some aspects of this story have modern-day echoes. Perhaps this could have been called the “Occupy Jones County” movement during which the 99 percent of those who got by with a small farm, some corn, and a couple of pigs lived a hard life while the one percent not only didn’t have to fight in the war if they owned more than 20 slaves, but hoarded all the profits from the cotton trade, sharing none of that wealth with the less fortunate.
As a Confederate deserter, Knight has to flee — both for his own safety and that of his wife (Keri Russell) and son — and makes his way into the swamps, where he encounters a group of runaway slaves who fled a nearby plantation. Though Knight befriends the slaves, notably Moses (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards) and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights) and eventually believes the Confederacy is their common enemy, director Gary Ross thankfully doesn’t try to equate oppressed white people with black people who were treated as less than human. The persecution and danger black people face in 1865 is even more dire after the end of the Civil War, when white supremacists mercilessly threaten and kill innocents throughout the territory.
But Free State of Jones eventually begins to lose its way by drawing out its story even further with a subplot involving a great-grandson (maybe a great-great grandson) of Knight’s, who is on trial 85 years later for breaking Mississippi’s law against interracial marriage. The prosecution argues that Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is 1/8 black due to his heritage, and under state law that makes him “colored” and unlawfully married to a white woman. Ross tries to make the jump between timelines smooth and seamless, and it’s worth noting that Knight’s battle — in addition to his life choices — had consequences for his descendants. However, the subplot sometimes confuses the story and feels like a diversion from the far more compelling plotline taking place in 1865.
Perhaps the biggest problem the movie faces is that Ross doesn’t quite know where to end his story. And that might not entirely be his fault. This is a big canvas he tries to paint on, and you can almost see where he thinks he might be reaching the end, only to look up and realize there’s a lot more space to fill, much more of Knight’s story that should be covered. Knight was a complex dude, who at one point lived with both his former and current wife in the same house. (The story doesn’t go on to say how long this living arrangement lasted, though made apparent that both women got along.) And at the point where the movie ends, it’s unclear just what exactly Knight won, if anything. But again, maybe that’s the point, even if it didn’t result in an entirely satisfying movie. This wasn’t a conflict he was going to “win.” That’s too simplistic a view.
Would this have been better served as a TV miniseries? If on cable, perhaps the violence of war and the dark places Knight goes with some of his decisions would have received their proper dramatic weight, rather than be softened for commercial interests. Other characters, such as Moses and Rachel, could have had far more depth added to their story arcs. At its best, Free State of Jones informs and reminds us of what happened during a bygone era, along with how those conflicts still resonate more than 150 years later. History is ugly, and Ross deserves credit for not shying away from that or putting too much of a heroic shine on Knight. If only the story was a bit more coherent, rather than a collection of vignettes. The director seems to lose his direction about halfway through his story, and what could have been a much better movie suffers for it.