Movie bogged down

Free State of Jones gets bogged down In the swamp

When a four-time Oscar nominated director does a Civil War drama starring one of today’s hottest leading men, it should be a great film.

However, much like its setting, Free State of Jones quickly gets bogged down in a complex swamp of race, class, and wealth disparity. 

Written and directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit and Pleasantville), the story follows reluctant hero Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer from Mississippi who is drafted into the Civil War, serves as a medic and goes on to lead a revolution. 

The story is loosely based on historical facts: Newt is working on the front lines when he is surprised to see his terrified 14-year-old nephew appear.

The boy informs him that Confederate soldiers have pillaged the family farm of all food and resources, conscripted him into service and burned the place to the ground. 

The boy has deserted and has sought him out in the hopes that he can protect him. Newt vows to escort the boy back to safety despite the fact that he will be a deserter.

When the boy is fatally wounded during their escape, Newt turns his back on the war and steals a mule to bring the boy back to his mother.

Once home, Newt is shocked to see the toll the war has taken on the local farmers and townspeople. It is Confederate law that soldiers are entitled to take 10 per cent of crops and supplies from individuals in order to support the war effort.

In an unbridled misuse of power however, he learns that soldiers are taking upward of 90 per cent of food and livestock, leaving families to starve.

Being a deserter, Newt must remain in hiding as he returns to see his wife, Serena, (Keri Russell) and their young son. The baby is sick with a high fever and in desperation, Newt seeks help.

A beautiful young woman named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) arrives in the night from the plantation to save the baby with some mysterious African remedies that we never see.

Newt and his wife are grateful their son is out of danger and he hands Rachel some gold in thanks.

When a neighbouring farm run by a mother and her three young daughters is threatened by Confederate soldiers, Newt answers the call for help and stands with shot gun in hand to dissuade the soldiers from taking what is not theirs.

All does not bode well for an army deserter and soon, he finds himself hunted by men with dogs.

Escaping from one of the dogs, Newt’s leg is mangled, so he is secreted away to an impassable swamp where he meets several runaway slaves and is tended to by Moses (Mahershala Ali) who eventually becomes a friend and ally. 

Disillusioned by the war and the injustices the Confederate soldiers are committing against his friends and family, Newt starts to form a small army as more deserters and slaves join him in the swamp.

Together, they are able to push the Confederate army soldiers out of their county and three additional counties, becoming a force of several hundred soldiers. 

The rebels determine to secede from the Confederacy and join the Republic, becoming the Free State of Jones, which is the name of their county.

In the middle of all of this scrambling for territory, Newt’s wife, Serena, leaves for Georgia to live with family when their farm is burned by soldiers out of revenge and he begins to fall in love with Rachel, the lovely black slave who has been ferrying food and supplies to the men in the swamp.

The story continues through post-war reconstruction where Newt and Rachel struggle to build a new life together and the KKK ensures that any ideas of emancipation or equality are thoroughly squashed. 

Interspersed in this historical re-enactment is a courtroom scene circa 1950 where a man who is reportedly 1/8th “black” is being criminally charged for marrying a white woman.

The continual cutaways to this time period and alternate story line are annoying and do not add to the film. 

Free State of Jones is marketed as being a historically accurate portrayal of the life of Newton Knight, but a bit of online research reveals that some of the ugly “authentic” details of Newt’s life are conveniently left out to favour our liberal 2016 sentiments. 

One such detail involves Rachel (intelligently and sensitively played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). When Newt met her, Rachel already had eight children; the first born when she was only 13 having been raped by her former slave owner.

Another factual flaw involves Newt’s first wife Serena with whom he had eight children before he met Rachel. 

The film implies that she abandons Newt. In actuality, he was arrested and tortured by the Confederate Army for deserting and was forced to go back to the front lines.

Their family farm was burned and all their worldly goods were confiscated. In desperation, Serena fled to Georgia with her children to live with family. 

There are some really lovely performances and make no mistake, some really solid filmmaking and impactful cinematography is present, but it is the lack of character relationships that sinks this film. Writer/Director Gary Ross, in an attempt to streamline a complex story about an obviously complex persona, creates a caricature of a hero who is as inscrutable at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. 

McConaughey carries the movie with a stoic lock-jawed determination, but we are never sure of his motivations or his relationships. There is only one genuine moment of vulnerability, which occurs at the very beginning of the film as his young nephew lays dying.

The character of Serena is virtually a blank slate and one might wonder if the writer/director meant to imply that all women of the era were nothing more than long-suffering baby-machine zombies stoically devoid of emotion. 

Mahershala Ali is brilliant as Moses and plays one of the most interesting characters. Moses is an escaped slave who befriends Newt, fights by his side during the rebellion and finds purpose in signing people up to vote. Moses (as his name implies) is driven to help his people find true freedom.

The movie does a good job of rendering a realistic view of the southern United States and the slavery mentality that built the cotton trade. It also puts a vivid spotlight on the deeply ingrained fear most southern whites had of empowering the slaves with any real post-war rights.

But all of this gets mired in the swamp of trying to tell too much of a too-long and too-complicated story. Free State of Jones would have been more effective had it ended with the war it depicted.

If you want to take a break from the plethora of action-packed blockbusters, comedies and animated features, this film is worth seeing and will give you lots to think about.

Warning: realistic and gory scenes involving the grim reality of war and survival.

I give this film 3 out of 5 hearts.

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About the Author

Kim Foreman-Rhindress is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and London Western Conservatory of music for piano and voice. 

Kim has been performing in theatre and film for over 30 years in Canada, NYC, Palm Beach, Los Angeles, and the Netherlands. She has written several plays which have been produced in Canada and the U.S., and is the founder of Kelowna Voice Lab - helping people find their voice, be it singing or acting. 

A working musician, she performs regularly in Kelowna with her husband, Jim Rhindress, in an acoustic duo Smitten, and with her vintage trio Kitsch 'n Sync.  

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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