Free State Of Jones

***

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Free State Of Jones
"Not surprising if the actors appear, at times, to be walking woodenly through their words. They are trying, doing their best, but they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues they are grappling with."

Ramshackle. Messy. Just occasionally magnificent. Free State Of Jones bears the hallmarks of a director (Gary Ross) who doesn't quite have the courage of his convictions.

If he had, this film, already long at 2 hours 20 minutes, could have, should have easily broken the three hour barrier – as the panoramic Once Upon A Time In The West almost but didn't quite. Today though, that might be box office suicide. So what we have instead is banquet reduced to fast food buffet: a narrative that dips in and out of some very big issues giving us a taste here, a sniff there of something much more meaty, and leaving the audience both full and semi-satisfied by the end.

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At its heart is real history: in October, 1863, Confederate deserters banded together to protect Jones and neighbouring counties from the depredations of Confederate authorities. This populist uprising, led by Newton Knight engaged in a number of pitch battles with official Confederate forces and allegedly – historians still argue this one – established their own constitution and seceded from the Confederacy.

For starters, the film serves a truly horrific vision of the Civil War, in which Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) first appears as non-combattant nurse. If you are at all squeamish, look away from the hospital scenes. In quick succession, we are “treated” to the death of local farm boy Daniel (Jacob Lofland) , Newton's desertion and return home, a falling out with arrogant authority in the shape of smug Confederate officer Lieutenant Barbour (Bill Tangradi), and his taking refuge in the swamps.

So far so predictable, and at this point, no surprise if the film turned into good old-fashioned feud, with Barbour playing Sheriff of Nottingham to Knight's Robin Hood.

Then the main course arrives, and we are into behind-the-lines civil war. While the big battalions are off slaughtering one another at Vicksburg and elsewhere, Knight's rapidly growing force is taking on the Confederacy, mano a mano, across large swathes of Mississipi.

Gotcha! It's a rise and fall narrative. Only dessert offers up post-war and Reconstruction. Knight's army has gone home and suddenly we are watching a different struggle: former black slaves attempting to assert their rights against a resurgent white supremacy.

So many big themes. For a moment, with its focus on the horrors of war, Free State Of Jones looks and feels like it might turn out to be anti-war. But, as Knight explains to an eight year old girl how to use a shotgun to defend herself and assert her rights, quite the opposite emerges. At times almost fetishising the power of guns, this is also perhaps the first film I have seen that provides a convincing rationale to the Second Amendment right to bear arms: which is that when your own government is against you, what else can you do but shoot back?

Interesting, too, is the way in which Knight's essentially revolutionary message emerges not from dry Marxian pamphlets (the great Karl was, at this moment putting the finishing touches to Das Kapital) but from the Biblical assertion that the fruits of whatever you put in the ground belong to you.

Then there is race, in the form of black woman, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who first nurses Knight's younger child through illness and later, after wife Serena (Kerri Russell) abandons him, becomes partner and lover – but not wife, because of Mississipi's racist miscegenation laws. Also playing a key role in the last half hour of the film is Moses (Mahershala Ali), the runaway slave who first gives shelter to Knight, and later is out in the post-War Jones county registering freed slave to vote, taking on the white re-establishment. Because after the war, nothing much has changed, and all the bad old, bad old people are back where they were at the start.

Wow! Not surprising if the actors appear, at times, to be walking woodenly through their words. They are trying, doing their best, but they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues they are grappling with. War. Secession. Basic human rights. The hypocrisy of white folks who will take a helping hand from black runaways – and turn on them when their power is restored.

Racism, systemic and cultural. Racist laws. The struggle of black Americans for the right to vote. Polygamy as a sensible response to unbearable suffering. All this and more. Free State of Jones is not only impressive, in a way that few recent films dealing with this period have been, but it opens up whole chapters of history that many people will have been unaware of before.

In the process, though, it sacrifices humanity and engagement. Just one or two of these threads would have made a great film. All of them together may leave you feeling just a little stuffed.

Reviewed on: 30 Sep 2016
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A disillusioned Confederate army deserter returns to Mississippi and leads a militia of fellow deserters, runaway slaves, and women in an uprising against the corrupt local Confederate government.
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