Pages Navigation Menu

"No matter where you go, there you are."


Review: Free State Of Jones – “A gripping, thought-provoking and eerily current piece of epic cinema”


Back when I’d learned that freshly appointed Oscar winner Matthew McCounaghey was going to star in a civil war drama from multi Oscar-nominated filmmaker Gary Ross, my passion for the iconic and defining period in American history combined with my love for the talent involved got me rather excited.

Despite the tepid reviews and lackluster box office upon its US release over the cluttered blockbuster summer, Free State Of Jones is actually a gripping, thought-provoking and eerily current piece of epic cinema that may be uneven at times but it is overall compelling and boasts great performances across the board.

One of the greatest gifts of cinema isn’t just that of being able to educate audiences whilst entertaining them when tackling history and current events, but also that of revealing stories we knew little or nothing about. In Free State Of Jones, Matthew McCounaghey portrays Newton Knight, a poor, brave farmer from Mississippi who served as a medic in the Civil War but wound up deserting and running a rebellion against the Confederacy’s abuses and injustice.

The film kicks off in the middle of the belligerent action, filmed by Ross in epic and spectacular fashion, with Knight doing his best to help save lives in his regiment but at the same time getting disillusioned about a conflict that’s appearing more and more like a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. When his nephew Daniel, (played by young star on the rise Jacob Lofland of Mud’s fame, who manages to impress within his rather short screen time), gets drafted despite his young age and dies in his arms during his first day in the trenches, Knight decides to take the boy back home for proper burial, effectively turning himself into a deserter.

Soon enough our hero gets even more disheartened by witnessing first hand how the confederate cavalry takes a higher percentage of provisions than what stated by law from the farms that are supposed to provide for the war effort. As he helps the neighbouring farmers to defend their land from the army’s abuses, his desertion becomes high profile and he quickly becomes a high profile wanted man. With a heavy heart he has no choice but run away, leaving his wife (Keri Russell) and infant child behind. With the help of Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a strong woman who resiliently endures the abuses of her white master, Knight hides deep in Mississippi’s impenetrable swamps, where other poor misfits seek refuge.

Knight meets Moses (Mahershala Ali), a runaway slave that soon becomes his best friend and right hand man in leading a legendary rebellion against the powers that be. Given the impractical and hostile environment they dwell in, these bold men manage to have tactical advantage over the Confederacy in spite of being outgunned and outnumbered. It’s a battle against all odds but Knight’s visionary stance against prejudice and exploitation lead him to establish the region’s first mixed race community, the free state of Jones indeed.

With his original feature debut Pleasantville in 1998 and his multi Oscar nominated Seabiscuit in 2003, underrated writer/director Gary Ross, whose latest film was the high profile adaptation of the first installment in The Hunger Game trilogy, has already proven a few times to be a solid filmmaker with a vision. Free State Jones, a project whose script he’s worked on for a decade, is the further confirmation of his ability to vividly portray the world his stories are set in, no matter if history or fantasy based.

His greatest merit with his newest cinematic effort is that of telling an inspiring true story most people won’t know and he does so in such a compelling and emotionally engaging way. The film in fact intercuts the period storyline with the 1948 trial of Davis Knight, Newton Knight’s and his common law wife and former slave Rachel’s great grandson, who was the key defendant in a groundbreaking miscegenation trial.

Watching the events unfold on screen whilst bearing in mind what’s going on in America these days makes Newton Knight’s true story an eerily current, and infuriatingly so, piece of American history more people should learn about. Realising that despite all the progress achieved as a species we still fall into the same embarrassing mistakes, letting history repeat itself, is hard to swallow. That’s why a film like this becomes important with its eye-opening, educational qualities.

Ross rounds up a formidable ensemble cast that believably transport us back in time, led by a raw and moving McCounaghey who effortlessly justifies his Oscar within a few scenes. Knight is a fascinating figure ahead of his time – he doesn’t own slaves and is morally opposed to secession and slavery. His friendship with Moses is the emotional core of the story and McConaughey’s chemistry with the brilliant yet underrated Mahershala Ali is what takes the film to the next level.

At times reminiscent of the epic atmosphere and pathos of a classic like Dances With Wolves and other less famous and underrated westerns of Costner’s golden age, Free State Of Jones could’ve been a little tighter on the edit side but still wins you over with its well-researched, thematically compelling and thought-provoking mix of history and poetic license. It might have gotten lost in the overcrowded maze of US blockbuster summer but it’s arguably worthy of enough attention to hopefully being remembered during awards season.


Next PostPrevious Post


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.