The height of summer blockbuster season may not seem like prime release territory for an epic drama set against the backdrop of the Civil War, but in a season jam-packed with sequels and spinoffs, Free State of Jones is a welcome bit of fresh air.
A grizzled, mud-flecked Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a farmer from Jones County, Mississippi conscripted into the Confederacy who abandons his duties after the passing of the “20 Negro Rule,” which excused wealthy plantation owners and their family members from being drafted. Resolute in his belief that poor men shouldn’t be forced to die so rich men could remain rich, Newt returns home and disappears into the nigh-impenetrable swamps with the help of Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a kindly slave from a neighboring household.
Joining up with a group of runaway slaves led by Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), Newt begins a campaign of harassment against the Confederate Army, disrupting their supply lines and returning “taxed” items to the community. As tales of his Robin Hood-like exploits begin to spread, Newt becomes a lightning rod for other deserters, who flock to the swamps to find out if tales of the charismatic crusader are true. Before long, Newt’s ragtag group of followers has become an Army of their own, liberating the surrounding countryside and declaring the area under their control a free and independent state.
But as the Civil War draws to a close and the Reconstruction period begins, the fight is only just beginning. The freedom Newt and his followers have worked so hard to achieve is slowly being stripped away, with plantation owners driving former slaves back into servitude under new “apprenticeship” laws, and the brutal tactics of the Ku Klux Klan creating a culture of fear throughout the American south. Considering today’s political climate, Free State of Jones is a stark reminder of how little progress has truly been made, and a scene involving the suppression of black votes by a group of smirking, rich white men bears an eerie resemblance to alleged events surrounding the presidential primaries.
After directing The Hunger Games, Gary Ross is an inspired choice to helm this story about the divide between poor, simple folks and the wealthy upper class. Whether it’s allowing the camera to linger on the mangled face of a solider who was met with cannon fire or showcasing the execution of several adolescent boys for deserting, Ross never shies away from the horrors of war. But working from his own screenplay, he’s almost too ambitious here, peppering the third act with blocks of text to provide context for certain events, and unsuccessfully trying to juxtapose Newt’s rebellion with a semi-related court battle in 1940s Mississippi that isn’t given enough screen time for the audience to become invested.
Shortcomings aside, Free State of Jones is still an effective drama that will likely expose many moviegoers to the legend of Newton Knight for the very first time, and while Ross has taken some pretty significant liberties in order to create a more cinematic experience, the core elements of the tale – a group of downtrodden citizens banding together to fight against a system designed to keep them in their place – not only ring true, but feel particularly relevant today.
McConaughey is excellent in this stirring Civil War epic about a ragtag group of freedom fighters tired of dying so rich men can stay rich. The struggle between the poor and the upper class feels particularly relevant in today's political climate.