During the later months of a calendar year, movies such as Free State of Jones come along to teach us about proper cinema, and that a film can have scale without having to burn through a budget of 200 million dollars. It is why these movies are considered for the prestigious awards in January and February. That being said, some movies can be weighed down by the need to teach the audience a lesson, resulting a lot of words with no real meaning behind them.
On entering this contest, Free State of Jones, based on the tragic true story of one Farmer’s rebellion against the South during the American Civil War, seemed to tick the right boxes. The preparation, casting and marketing all seemed to point towards nothing other a comprehensive victory across all 3 rounds. Was this the case? Or was this more of those history lessons we had to sit through during the final period of a Friday Afternoon?
Round 1 – Plot
As previously mentioned, Free State of Jones is the remarkable true story of Farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) who after losing his son during the American Civil War decides to desert his post and stand up for what he believes is wrong with the Confederate State of Mississippi.
On paper this story had the potential to be just as thought provoking as it is action-packed, however instead we were treated to uncomfortable confrontations between characters we barely knew, court cases set 80 years in the future and Inventory transactions. Don’t get me wrong, when this is good, it’s good! However the pros only just outweigh the cons.
Writer/Director Gary Ross manages to bring together a story that stinks of teaching the audience a lesson in treating one another properly. I appreciate that during this time period the relationship between Black and White people was untenable to say the least, however I don’t want to watch a movie that makes me feel bad for enjoying myself. Whenever things started to look positive, something would occur to bring me crashing down to Earth with a dusty bang.
All in all, although the story felt a bit preachy, it was still captivating enough to make quietly sit through all 135 minutes of its runtime.
ROUND 1 SCORE – 5/10
Round 2 – Characters
The characters of Free State of Jones, although few its quantity of high-end talent, managed to give enough weight to the story mentioned above to ensure its development did not seem too drawn out. However, as you can expect, there is only one name that can ensure this Round is deemed a success or failure: Matthew McConaughey.
McConaughey did what he has been doing these last 5/6 years: Bring swagger and a relatable demeanour to his performance. His native Southern Accent, although emphasised somewhat for effect, allows McConaughey to focus more on what he needs to say instead of how it needs to be said. It is in these roles that he can really shine as an actor. Personally I struggle to invest in McConaughey the Astronaught, to me his persona perfectly fits his Everyman characteristic needed to sell a story as sensitive as this one.
Special mentions must go out to Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Moses and Rachel respectively. I always feel a level of respect for actors that tackle a role as controversial as a Black person living in the middle 1800s. It can’t be easy to hear or read some of things said by other cast members in the Spirit of Entertainment.
ROUND 2 SCORE – 7/10
Round 3 – Overall Enjoyment
As hinted at in the previous 2 rounds, there are times during Free State of Jones that the viewer can feel almost uncomfortable while the oppressive Confederates segregate and persecute the Black people of this time for the sole reason of the colour of their skin. Obviously this can cause the levels of enjoyment to wane from time to time, however on the whole this film manages to highlight a very integral piece of American history that a large number of people will have never heard of.
From beginning to end Free State of Jones incorporates the mindless racism alongside the brutality of the age to often meaningful effect. However it is the constant depression running through its heart that causes the viewer to sometimes forget they are watching something intended to entertain.
ROUND 3 SCORE – 5/10
FINAL SCORE – FREE STATE OF JONES WINS 17/30
Maybe not the best film to watch with a group of friends on a Saturday night, however if you need to take a step away from the monotony of blockbusters then by all means gives Free State of Jones a watch. Although it won’t be the best film you see this year, it will without doubt be better than a great number of other movies out there today.