A disillusioned Confederate army deserter (Matthew McConaughey) returns to Mississippi and leads a militia of fellow deserters, runaway slaves, and women in an uprising against the corrupt local Confederate government.
Looking at the above plot description, you'd be forgiven for thinking Free State Of Jones is a run-of-the-mill period biopic, but there's a lot more to it on the surface. If anything, it's trying to condense down over a hundred years of racial tension in the U.S. and make a case for another Oscar on the mantlepiece of Matthew McConaughey. Generally speaking, biopics fall into two camps - they either focus on a single episode in a well-known life, e.g. Spielberg's Lincoln and the passing of the 13th Amendment, or it encompasses all aspects of their life, much like Attenborough's Gandhi. What Free State of Jones attempts to do is straddle the middle ground and, along the way, tell a completely different story that's been left out of any and all marketing material related to the story.
McConaughey is Newton Knight, a nurse working for the Confederacy during the Civil War and is becoming increasingly dillusioned with the inequalities in power he sees. Officers are treated better, plantation owners aren't sending their sons to fight and struggling families are being raided for supplies by those in uniform. Leading a popular uprising from a swamp where he's been hiding with a number of runaway slaves, Knight forms an independent state in Mississippi with his compatriots and begins to fight off the Confederacy. Just when you think you've got a handle on the story, it flashes forward to the '60s and a descendant of Knight's is being charged under segregation laws for marrying a white woman. The story gives away a huge plot point - that Knight left his wife and married and had a child with a freed black woman - almost in the first act and is handled so poorly and so haphazardly, that the film becomes a mess from here on in.
That being said, McConaughey's performance is sharp and he brings a sense of grandeur and poise to the role without overstating it. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is, likewise, well placed as the love interest and has her own story that isn't fully explored or realised. Mahershala Ali, meanwhile, plays the freedman Moses Washington and manages to hold his own against McConaughey and others on screen. There's a particularly beautiful scene later in the film where his character is walking through Mississippi, meeting with former slaves to register to them to vote, that is particularly pertinent in the current political climate in the U.S.
For all the admirable performances and actors attached, the film still can't really seem to hit a groove or find its footing. Gary Ross, late of the Hunger Games franchise, reportedly spent over ten years researching the story and the level of detail and depth that's in the story is almost stifling. With a bit more judicious editing at the script stage, Free State of Jones would have been a much clearer and more concise film than what it was. While the parallels between Newton Knight and his descendant are relevant, it doesn't really add all that much to the story. Moreover, there's plenty of subplots that aren't explored or are tied off so quickly that could have been more exciting and interesting to follow. Ross has an eye for spectacle and knows how to direct a battle sequence, but the film loses itself in trying to hit all the researched points of the story that it has no sense of pacing.
Free State Of Jones has good intentions and it's an overlooked part of American history that deserves to be given an airing, but its insistence on telling every aspect of it leaves it dry and saddles some talented performers with a mess of a film.