Free State of Jones – *1/2 OUT OF 4
Director-Screenwriter Gary Ross (“Hunger Games”, “Sea-Biscuit”) plays loose with facts and history in this poorly scripted film which lacks esprit de corps and at times becomes a didactic documentary. Don’t get me wrong the idea of making a film about slavery and racial conflict is a noble one but this film does not do justice to the cause.
The focus of the story is a poor white Jones County, Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight played with as much conviction as the script would allow by the great Matthew McConaughy. Newt fought in the civil war only to abandon the Confederacy to lead a cadre of Union loyalists known as the Knight Company. They hung out in a mangrove swamp waiting for their Union soldier prey.
Ross paints an idealized portrait of Knight as he forms a rainbow coalition with disaffected blacks. More questions than answers are created. For example how does everyone look so polished and clean as they go to battle their mortal enemy? We never see how they ate or slept.
The most inept part of this film involves flash-forwards to Mississippi in 1948, where Davis Knight, a great grandson of Newt is on trial for miscegenation. Ross once again doesn’t seem to know how to tie everything together in his script. He wants to show how little everything has changed in 100 years but the juxtaposition fails to work.
This film feels so contrived with speeches acting like sermons. The end of the film is told through title cards which weaken the overall thrust of the story even more. It’s a shame that such a fertile subject was botched so badly.