Film Review: Free State of Jones (MA15+) (USA, 2016) is saved by its strong performances

Gary Ross’ Civil War drama Free State of Jones recounts one of the most interesting, albeit lesser-known, tales from the 1860s and 70s in Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight, disillusioned with the Confederate forces, deserts the war and builds himself a ragtag army comprised of poor farmers and runaway slaves, bent on fighting back against the forces who had suppressed them for so long in a “poor man’s fight, but a rich man’s war”.

What Ross has created is an unfortunately dry and painstakingly long retelling of what is a powerful and astounding tale, misusing the mesmerizing acting performances of McConaughey and his co-stars. We begin in the midst of battle, Ross refusing to hold back the stark reminders of how horrid the war was, and Confederate medic Knight (McConaughey) already disenchanted with the idea of meaningless death.

Disgusted by the idea that men with 20 slaves are exempt from fighting, Knight finally decides to desert the army after a series of events leads to the death of his teenage relative, although this relation was not made as clear. Thus begins Knight’s journey to befriending the most unlikely of soldiers, including slave girl and his eventual partner Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), forgetting the imagined boundaries of race, wealth and colour to unite under one ambition – to reclaim what they believe they rightfully own.

A compelling story, but Ross decides to obscurely leap back and forth inconsistently between this timeline and 80 years ahead where Knight’s descendant is being persecuted for marrying a white woman despite his African American lineage in Rachel. These flash-forwards not only detracted from the main storyline by stunting its momentum, they also had almost no relevance and were rarely seen in the near-2.5 hour run time. It makes one question why they were ever included in the narrative to begin with.

The colours and cinematography are beautiful, as is the smooth editing and sweet music underlying a heavy plot, but they do little to intensify a narrative that feels a whole lot like build up but no climax. A cluster of clunky, unnecessary scenes draw out portions of the tale that could easily have been removed with the only change being that the momentum would be faster. It is a wonderful story, and it’s easy to misinterpret “slow” for “uninteresting”, but Ross skirts the dangerous line between the two with little self-awareness in the pursuit of something Oscar-worthy.

With an orientation that lasted an hour but could have been told in twenty minutes, Ross loses clarity as to what exactly he wants the story to be – an anti-racism story, a love story, a revenge story, a hero’s tale. It is possible to be all of these, but Ross leaves one to pursue another then returns expecting it to not be jarring. Along with a series of strange still images and textual expositions, what we’re left with is a collage of long scenes that needn’t be nearly as long as they were, followed by rushed conclusions in the form of text as though they ran out of ideas.

Despite this, what must be commended are the acting performances by almost all who stood in front of the camera at any point. McConaughey is magnificent, as can be expected, as a broken man who only wants to do the right thing but is consistently resisted. He brings an emotional depth to the character that, had anyone else donned the same dirty white shirt, the risk of creating a one-dimensional benevolent hero would have been far greater. Alongside this powerhouse, Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings a sincerity and strength to a torn woman, while House of Cards alumni Mahershala Ali stood out as Moses Washington, a quiet but passionate runaway slave-turned-political activist.

The story is worth telling, and the actors that bring it to life do it with authenticity and respect. Had the direction been clearer and its screenplay less chunky, these performances would have lead a modern piece of art. Disappointingly, however, they were lost in a mélange of peculiar choices that left the unpleasant taste of gunpowder in the mouth.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Free State of Jones is in Australian cinemas August 25

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