In cinema’s post-Dallas Buyer’s Club world, it seems as though a single year cannot pass without Matthew McConaughey making a return to the big screen to assure us that, in spite of all that has come before, he has remained on the straight and narrow and not fallen back to the dark side of terrible romantic comedies. This autumn’s edition comes in the form of Free State Of Jones, a film with a deeply interesting story and a setting that speaks very much to my personal tastes, both historically and cinematically.
Free State Of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight (McConaughey), a disillusioned Civil War soldier fighting on the Confederate side who decides to flee his company and, along with a somewhat ragtag group of escaped slaves and fellow deserters, sets up and defends a free state on Mississippi land where ideals of racial and financial equality are emphasised. The story spans a series of years through the bitterness of the war and the following years of unrest where, though slavery had been abolished, African Americans in the South still suffered illegal enslavement and often fatal prejudice. Though I am drawn to narratives such as this in film, I cannot profess a vast knowledge of the period, therefore how much of the story is revisionist history, I cannot say, but from a purely cinematic point of view, Free State Of Jones is an incredible story that, despite a few stellar performances, is a little too laboured and ponderous in its telling. The picture feels divided very much in to ‘at war’ and ‘post-war’ sections, and at nearly two and a half hours in length, there is a sense that the narrative fails to regain the momentum it loses after the point at which the war ends and the ‘free state’ loses some of its purpose.
Alongside the period storytelling of the 1860s, the film inserts snippets of an entirely different but intrinsically related subplot that takes place some 85 years later, and although there is some intrigue in the proceedings, these interspersed moves away from the 19th century swamps of Mississippi ultimately act as a hindrance in terms of the tone and atmosphere of the overall picture. The film definitely falls in to the category of an against the odds, triumph over adversity, inspirational experience, but as one expects with the time period and themes, there is a large does of bittersweet with one tragic event happening for every two hopeful ones. Though this narrative track is predictable, it is nonetheless effective and whilst the film does have its flaws in pacing and in trying to harness the sprawling story, it proves to be a cathartic viewing experience that on a technical level, oozes an authentic 19th century Southern aesthetic that draws you in and forces you to feel every drop of Mississippi swamp humidity. There is nothing wrong with a slow burn, especially a Southern slow burn, and though I cannot say that I did not enjoy spending time with Free State Of Jones, I am left with the feeling that it could have been so much more.
Though nobody in the cast puts a foot wrong, it is undeniable that the picture rests on the powerful, charismatic shoulders of Matthew McConaughey. As Newton Knight, McConaughey gives a performance so assured, so measured and so immersive that you instantly understand how the character could amass such a loyal and passionate band of brothers. As Southern accents in cinema go, it seems as though nobody can do it quite like McConaughey these days, with a drawl that provides more character depth on its own than some actors can evoke with an entire physical performance. It’s hard to think how a man who was so obtuse in films like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days can be so nuanced, so hypnotic, so enigmatic in the majority of his projects now, and whatever the reason was for his career U-turn, I will be forever grateful, as Mud, Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Interstellar have been some of my favourite pictures in the last few years. Strong and endearing supporting performances are given by, amongst others, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell, all of whom make a solid contribution in adding human connection to the often overwhelming themes of the narrative. Honestly the cast cannot be faulted in anyway, there is just an unavoidable sense that the film comes to be less than the sum of its parts.
Overall, Free State Of Jones gives the audience an aesthetically pleasing insight in to an incredibly interesting slice of American history, the problem is that it just doesn’t do it quite well enough. It is by no means a bad film, and it in McConaughey’s central turn it contains one of my favourite performances of the year so far, but there is just something about the mixed focus of the narrative and the way that the plot becomes bogged down and laboured in parts that prevents it from being anything more than a 6.5/10. Worth a watch for the magnetism of McConaughey alone, but certainly boasting in other departments as well despite its flaws.