Has the so-called “McConaissance” come to an end with this true-life American Civil War drama? Some industry watchers reckon so. However, the fact is, Matthew McConaughey – having risen from the ashes of many a rubbish romantic comedy in the noughties – here again demonstrates the kind of deeply dug intensity that can elevate a merely average film to greater heights.
What’s more impressive is that McConaughey, playing a disillusioned medic for the Confederate Army in 1862, doesn’t have the luxury of trading on the kind of sparkly-eyed, down-home southern charm evidenced in Mud and Dallas Buyer’s Club (for which he won the best actor Oscar). Newton Knight has few reasons to smile, witnessing bloody carnage on a daily basis on the fields of combat – and we’re spared no amount of gory detail by writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games), either.
Knight comes to the end of his tether after watching a teenage boy – his own kin – draw his last breath. He deserts his unit, having made the point that those men (and children) who are laying down their lives for the South are dirt poor, sacrificed for the sake of wealthy slave owners. According to statute, those from households who own at least 20 slaves are exempt from fighting.
He would rather go home to Jones County, Mississippi, to protect his wife and child from Confederate troops who are requisitioning corn and livestock as part of the war effort. What develops from here comprises an unusual and intriguing chapter in Civil War history. One of the more memorable images sees Knight, having come to a neighbour’s aid, flanked by little girls with shotguns cocked and ready when Lieutenant Barbour (a sneering Bill Tangradi) rides up with his men.
Knight then builds a resistance movement from the swamp where he has been hiding out with runaway slaves and where Confederates fear to tread. His right-hand man is Moses (Mahershala Ali), their friendship forged when Knight risks capture and death to release him from a spiked iron collar. He also falls for a slave girl, Rachel (Doctor Who alumnus Gugu Mbatha-Raw), because his wife (Keri Russell) is only in the picture intermittently, wearied by the fight.
Nobility pours off the screen in waves with Knight and his multicultural community growing in number and bearing arms to inhabit their own “free state”. Meanwhile the other “n-word” is at the centre of many a rousing speech, whether to embrace it in irony, or denounce it. But for all the right-on sentiment, it’s a strikingly chaste romance between Knight and Rachel. They never kiss (apparently, a scene was cut); they merely cast a glance at a bed and months later, she is pregnant. Why so coy?
If the powers-that-be in Hollywood greenlit this film in response to the diversity row surrounding this year’s Oscars, they may have shot themselves in the foot with this reticence. Ross paints the characters in broad strokes, too, either to lionise or condemn them. Certainly a man as complex as Knight (who housed both Rachel and his wife simultaneously) needed more shading.
Free State of Jones is not a complete waste of time, though. McConaughey’s fiery performance goes a long way to making up for some of the gutlessness of the film-makers and Knight’s inherent gumption means you can’t turn away. The fascination is in how far he is willing to go for his principles.
Ross distracts by occasionally cutting forward to the 1940s when one of Knight’s descendants (Brian Lee Franklin) is in court for miscegenation. Overall, Ross bites off more than he can chew in trying to keep up with so many battles in a war that continues even after peace is declared, when all he really needs to do is tighten his focus, let go of the hang-ups and give McConaughey more room.
Free State of Jones is released in cinemas on Friday 30th September
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