FREE STATE OF JONES
Free State of Jones came and went so fast that I don't remember it playing at the second-run theater (where box office failures rush to). Given the film stars Matthew McConaughey, recently off his Oscar win and his, well, curious Lincoln car commercials, it seems strange that it would be one of 2016's biggest flops. Stranger still when it was presented as some sort of action film set during the Civil War and details a little-known bit of Civil War history.
Free State of Jones does what appears to be impossible, but bless the film, it manages the impossible: it makes an interesting, no, fascinating piece of history into a slow, dull, dragging horror of a film, where you might end up rooting for the Confederacy just to see him die.
Newton Knight (McConaughey) is a Confederate nurse who has grown angry over how the Confederate Army has a very class-conscious system: officers are treated first over common troops even if the officer's injuries are lesser. Knight's anger grows when he learns that the Confederate Congress has passed legislation saying that if anyone has 20 slaves, he can return to his home and leave the Army. This "20 Negro Law" means that the poor white farmer (like Knight) have to keep fighting and dying in a cause they don't believe in. Knight's anger boils over when his young nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) is not just dragged out to fight, but is killed in battle.
Knight has had enough and deserts, taking his nephew's body for burial (where he speaks at the gravesite. He does that a lot in Free State of Jones). He also goes back to his wife Serena (Keri Russell), and later meets Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mulatto healer who saves his infant son. As a deserter, Knight's life is in danger, and Serena leaves with their child/children for their own protection. Knight, however, takes to the swamps.
There, Rachel leads him to runaway slaves (making Newton Knight one of the few, if only, passengers on the Underground Railroad). Chief among them is Moses (Mahershala Ali), who has run off to find his wife and son who were sold to Texas. The Confederate army wants to capture Newton Knight, but he is a new Swamp Fox, and with more deserters and runaway slaves he creates his own army. Under his command, Knight's Watch creates a counterinsurgency and a 'free state of Jones', removed from the Confederacy (this state made up from Jones County). A thorn in the side of the Rebels, the Free State manages to see the fall of the South.
After the war, things remain extremely hard for Knight and his men. Rachel and Newton have fallen in love and have children together (though they are forbidden to marry, both by the law and by the fact that Serena has returned, even helping raise Rachel's children). A loyal Unionist and Republican, Knight fights to get ex-slaves the right to vote guaranteed under the 14th and 15th Amendments despite much trickery from the defeated Rebels. They even try to circumvent the 13th Amendment by creating forced 'apprenticeships' for black children who are taken from their families (in this case, Moses') and forced to work in the fields.
Intercut with all this is the story of Knight's great-great-great-grandchild, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin). Because he is 1/8th 'Negro' he cannot, in the Great State of Mississippi, marry the woman he loves because she is white and he, in the eyes of state law, isn't.
Yes, despite looking white (even with red hair), he qualifies as 'Negro' due to being (potentially) 1/8th black. I say 'potentially' because part of his defense is that perhaps he isn't the child of Newton and Rachel, but of Newton and Serena.
It is simply astonishing that a subject so fascinating as that of Free State of Jones can be made into a film so dry, so dull, so devoid of any interest, and so sleep-inducing. The fault lies in so many places, but the first place to look at is the structure.
Writer/director Gary Ross opted to have what looked like two films going on: the main story of Newton Knight, and the subplot of his descendant Davis Knight. My sense is that it might have worked better if it had been the other way round: starting with Davis' trial for miscegenation and going back to how his ancestors met (and throwing in the mystery of Serena to leave doubt as to whether Davis had any 'Negro' blood in him). Instead, we go for long stretches where Davis' story isn't mentioned or integrated into the main story (no pun intended).
It all looks as if Ross wasn't sure which film he'd make, or even if he wanted a framing story, and kind of left things go all over and see what would happen. Granted, the idea of the framing story with Davis might have been the safe way, but at least it would have lent logic to including it in Free State of Jones. As it stands, this subplot seems to come from another world.
Another issue with the film is that things are both rushed through in some things and drag in others. For example, we are introduced to Daniel early on, but he gets killed off probably within five minutes of his entrance (and truth be told, I think I'm being generous with the time). Same with two other minors who are part of Knight's Watch (which I think would have made a better title than Free State of Jones). We're introduced to them (though I'm hard-pressed to remember their names) and then they are hung by order of the evil Confederate general.
There is no emotional impact because we don't get to know them, and despite what is suppose to be horrors committed, we don't get to feel anything for them.
In the drag part, there are so many long scenes that seem to go on, and almost deliberately overdone. Moses is registering people to vote, and his registering goes on for quite a bit. His own death shortly afterwards is sad, but as played by McConaughey still a bit blank. McConaughey didn't come across as a heroic figure or even one who truly believed in the equality of all. He came across, if anything, as slightly bonkers.
A lot of the problems with Free State of Jones involves how the actors were directed. So many of them appeared blank and with little to no emotion. Bless Mbatha-Raw, who did have a few good moments (such as when she sees her first featherbed and realizes it's for her). However, for most of Free State of Jones, things look flat-out bizarre. There is no excuse for making Russell look so bored, and worse, for not exploring or even touching on the fact that she has essentially been replaced by Rachel. It is so weird to think that Serena had no opinion on the matter regardless of race.
Yet a lot of what could be potentially interesting threads were just touched on before the film went off somewhere else. Rebecca's sexual abuse at the hands of her master was hinted at, and then not made a part of the story when said master returns to retake his old plantation.
More problems come around when Ross appears to tell us when we are in the story. He sometimes puts text in MASSIVE letters (such as JULY 1863) but at other times puts such small text filling in information (such as when Vicksburg falls) and putting in photographs of the era that one wonders if Free State of Jones is trying to be a movie or a documentary.
As I think on Free State of Jones, about the only thing I can compliment the film on is I'm Crying, the Lucinda Williams song that closes out the film. It might be a contender for Best Original Song if it was written for the film. Apart from that, Free State of Jones takes its fascinating story and decides to mummify it in good, even noble intentions, but that makes Newton Knight into a dull, lifeless figure.
It's a bore, which the real story shouldn't be.