Review: Free State of Jones

Score: B+

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rated: R

Free State of Jones is another powerful historical drama starring Matthew McConaughey. Filled with righteous fury, he continues his hot streak as Newton Knight, a disillusioned Confederate army medic.

Newt (as he’s called by just about everyone) leads a band of deserters, war widows and runaway slaves as they hide out in the Mississippi swamp. Together, they forge a community and Newt becomes an Antebellum Robin Hood, stealing back the ill-gotten gains of the tax collectors and rapists who steal from the few Southerners lucky enough to still have a home.

In the movies at least, the Civil War has almost become glamorized, making out soldiers on both sides to be gentlemen fighting for honor and tradition. Free State of Jones puts to bed this nonsense. War – as always – is nasty, brutal business. This movie doesn’t shy away from the brutality or the heinous violence inflicted on African Americans before, during and after the war.

While its passion reminded me of Django Unchained – though it’s hardly a comedy – the film I was most reminded of while watching Free State of Jones was Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Both films are about the cost of vengeance when both sides think they’re right, repaying violence with violence. It’s not quite as bleak as that film, but it’s still a gut-punch when the actions of Newt and his army don’t amount to all they hoped. Even after the slaves are emancipated and the war ends, their struggles don’t.

Where Free State of Jones stumbles is in an epilogue that it curiously distributes throughout the film, in which Newt’s grandson Davis is on trial for marrying a white woman – something that’s illegal under Mississippi state law since his grandmother was black. It’s true and infuriating, but the courtroom scenes are handled in clunky fashion, and the prosecutor is such a caricature of a Southern good ol’ boy, I’m surprised he didn’t spend every scene stretching his suspenders.

Otherwise, this is a tremendously entertaining, blood-boiling true story. Like its protagonist, it’s stubborn in its refusal to be pigeonholed or easily labeled.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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