By Michael Kaye
Free State of Jones (Review)
A couple of weeks ago, I got into a debate with a friend over what makes a good historical drama. He was leaning more on the side of historical accuracy, while I leaned more towards making the best film possible, even at the expense of taking a few liberties. The reason I bring this up is because the film I'm about to review struggles mightily to satisfy both sides of our debate. This is Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey.
Here's the story. As civil war divides the nation, a poor farmer from Mississippi leads a group of rebels against the Confederate army.
I haven't used this term in a while, but this is most certainly a "broken" movie, one that does one or two things spectacularly well, while failing miserably at others. Here are my positives and negatives.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
First off, I think one of the best things about the movie is the cast. There's not a single bad performance throughout the film. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, the leader of the Jones County rebels. The resemblance between McConaughey and the real Newton Knight is uncanny, I was very impressed by the way he became lost in the character. I knew nothing about him going into this movie, but it was his performance that has gotten me interested in learning more. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, a former slave turned love interest. I'm so glad that she's getting more work after her breakout role in Beyond the Lights. I can't mention everyone, but the other two performances that really stood out were Kerri Russell as Knight's wife Serena and Mahershala Ali as the former slave Moses.
The story of Newton Knight is most definitely a fascinating one. Aside from Tap Roots, I don't think we've ever seen a proper version of Knight on the big screen. The coolest thing about this movie is how Gary Ross went the extra mile to make this as historically accurate as possible. He even went as far as getting help from actual historians, assisting in both the screenplay and even visiting the set of the film. Speaking of which, the production design is excellent, it feels like they traveled back in time to the Civil War era. Supposedly the budget on this film was $50 Million, which I guess makes sense when you take a look at some of the antique props and costumes.
Finally, like always, I have to talk about the music, composed by Whiplash producer Nicholas Britell. This guy's not like a Hans Zimmer or a John Williams, whose score can sometimes be a little overbearing. Instead, it's very minimalist, and fits in perfectly with the time period. Sometimes it gives the movie a bit of a Western flavor, which I can appreciate as a fan of the genre.
As far as negatives go, I only have one, but it's a MAJOR problem, especially considering my stance on movies based on true events.
The problem I have with this movie is entirely foundational, as in, Newton Knight's story is so rich that one movie isn't enough to cover everything. It's because of that singular problem that ultimately this films kinda falls apart. 2 hours and 20 minutes is too short to cover every significant event concerning Knight and his family, and yet the film is so poorly paced that you still get moments that drag on for too long. If I had to choose a subplot or two to cut from the film in order to streamline it, I would have definitely gotten rid of the flashes forward to Davis Knight's trial, which felt so out of place. I also would have kept the focus simply on Knight's battles against the Confederate army from 1863-1865, we didn't exactly need to see beyond the end of the war.
There are two other options I would have preferred for telling this story. Either make an HBO or History Channel miniseries, giving all these events some actual room to breathe, or give it to me in the form of a documentary. If you're going through all the trouble of making the film as historically accurate as possible, you can't forget to also make a good movie.
Gary Ross, you're lucky I'm a generous man, as I still gave Free State of Jones a fresh rating. There's nothing wrong with the content itself, it's just a matter of execution. The performances are still great, the production design is picture perfect, and thanks to this movie I am very invested in learning more about the life of Newton Knight. You're mileage may vary with this one, folks. If you're a history buff like me, there's plenty to enjoy, but this was not made for the casual moviegoer.
Now I wanna hear from you guys! Have you seen Free State of Jones, and if so what did you think? Also, what are some of the best movies based on true events? Drop your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for my next review, where I finally get to talk about one of the best films of the decade, Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive!