FREE STATE OF JONES – REVIEW BY GADI ELKON

"FREE STATE OF JONES is an epic action-drama set during the Civil War, and tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy."  From FREE STATE OF JONES Website.

Click through for my review of the film.

Four-time Oscar nominated director Gary Ross brings about his bloodiest and most ambitious story.  The movie does an amazing job of capturing the hopelessness of war and the brutality that is left in its wake.  Free State does a great job of showcasing the importance of crops and food needed to carry on a war.  The army's constant needs pushed the regular folks to have their farms raided and pillage by the same men fighting for their "freedom".  Gary Ross' film highlights this great divide and in this scene we gain the scope of what food means to both sides. 

Oscar® winner Matthew McConaughey's performance as Newt Knight is a solid mixture of gritty reality and slightly unrealistic virtue.  He captures the look and feel of the real life rebel.  But overall the role is a tough one to gain sympathy for.  We see Newt leave his wife (solid performance by Keri Russell) and child, desert his brothers in war and unsuccessfully help change the minds and laws of Mississippi.  Overall Free State of Jones is a great tale of a group of rebels, but like most rebellions it's ultimately lost to history because they end up not impacting their world enough. 

Jones county's short lived separation is a grand motivation, but the film lacks a huge important element to be a moving portrait of our history.  We don't see enough of the real people, of the runaway slaves of the freed men.  We follow McConaughey's self-righteous Knight, but never fully meet the men and women behind the rebellion. 

Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES
Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES
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Two of the best performances in the film are from Mahershala Ali (Moses) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Rachel).  Both are given ample screen time, but all their key moments revolve around McConaghey's Knight.  Films like 12 Years A Slave made a massive impact on the film going community because we saw the reality of slavery from the POV of a man living it.  The Rachel character in Free State is incredibly intriguing and worth more than a supporting "healer" role.  If the film had giving us more time with Moses and Rachel we could have seen the true nature of the underground movement that helped facilitate the uprising in Jones County.  An example of this is the tragic nature of Moses' character.  We see many bloody violent sequences of war and even terrible close ups of the brutal impact of guns and weapons on flesh.  A face blown away by a rifle, limbs hacked off by doctors, bullets ripping through the body.  BUT, the most violent and vicious murder in the film is not shown.  We don't see the KKK kill our beloved Moses.  We only see McConaghey's reactions.  I don't know if the film would have been better if we'd seen the brutal murder, but seeing the lives of these people over Knight's would have made it better.  We needed more time spent with the runaways and these figures that have been lost to history.  By telling the story of a man who is known about we don't truly gain an acceptance of those that are forgotten.  I wanted to know who was this mysterious Moses and who was the dynamic Rachel. 

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES
Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

Her story impacts the decades that follow in the film.  We are merely given glimpses of the union that was between Knight and Rachel.  Their offspring's battles in the modern day court of Mississippi deserves it's own film!  I wish we'd seen more of how the modern state of America is still filled with racism and inequality.  That plot line is by far the most impactful to us the modern audience, the irony of a white man with black blood who can't marry showcases the centuries in which black people were denied the basic elements of humanity.  We don't see the brutal lives they live, like we do in 12 Years a Slave, instead everything is masked by Newt Knight's supposedly heroic story.  A POV switch from the WHITE hero to the real BLACK heroes could have made this film an important one.   Instead we are left with a decent summer time film that gives us a unique look into a history we all may have missed.  The film is worthy of your time, but realize why it's a film released in June and not in "Oscar" season.  DP Benoit Dehomme's camera work and the music of Nicholas Britell stand out throughout the movie.  Lucinda Williams closing song is a thing of beauty amongst Dehomme's shots of swamp land Mississippi.  Overall a well made and very well acted film that is lacking a real relatable figure to carry us through the brutal world we witness.  FREE STATE OF JONES is out now in theaters. 

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