Free State of Jones is a film set during the American Civil War in Jones County, Missouri, inspired by the true story of Newton Knight. Newton Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a southern farmer, who like many others, is forced to fight in the war that he believes has nothing to with him and only benefits the rich men. After he guards a southern farmer family against paying the cotton taxes to the Confederate Army, he is a wanted man and joins a group of runaway slaves in a swamp who are also in hiding. Soon, he trains the slaves in the swamp to defend themselves and develops an army of sorts with many other fugitives from the Confederate Army who have fled from the war.
Free State is beautifully made and the direction and screenplay show sensitivity and respect towards the subject matter. The plot tries to be as historically accurate as possible with displays of real historical images between scenes. It almost gives a feeling of a documentary with the historical facts often displayed in writing that follow a logical chronological order. The cinematography is gorgeous and really gives a feel about what America was like in the times of the Civil War. Matthew McConaughey plays the character with the same sensitivity as displayed in the plot.
There is nothing that you can really fault in making of the movie. Except that it is so boring. The documentary feel of the film works in parts but really starts to look like a history lesson with so many events, dates and explanations for every scene. The film tries to pack in as much material as possible showing every detail of the event that it becomes exhausting for the audience to take in so much information, process it and try to make sense of it all. If the plot had just focused around Newton Knight and his fight for Jones county, it would have tied up into a neat little bow. But the film continues to run for a good half an hour after the Civil war is over and shifts its focus on slavery and the story of the great-grandchild of Newton Knight both of which are very loosely connected to the main plot. By the end, it is confusing for the audience to gather the entire plot or remember it.
The film also fails to address some of the most interesting and glaring subjects of the time. The tension of the white soldiers in the rebel army of farmers with the slaves is never resolved. The two wives of Newton Knight seem to get on perfectly well with each other despite their racial differences. It seems that the film is so focused on respecting the historical facts, it forgets to add the human element of interactions between these historical characters. Having said that, the film has many memorable, well directed scenes (my particular favourite was the fight that erupts at a funeral). The film gives an insight into an interesting historical event that is not widely known in American history but it makes for an okay movie. With the right editing, it could have been a great one.
Free State of Jones is on general release now