The first thing that needs saying about Free State of Jones is that, as history, it’s hooey that very nearly makes Braveheart look watertight. In reality, its hero Newton Knight was a slave-owner and bigamist whose motives were far less clear-cut than those presented here. In the race to follow Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Hollywood has snatched up another striking Civil War tale and hurriedly repurposed it into a format the industry (and perhaps the audience) better understands: the old-timey star vehicle centred on a Caucasian saviour figure – a literal white Knight.
This Newt (Matthew McConaughey) is a beardily humble Confederate medic who deserts his post in late 1862 in order to bury a nephew shot on the battlefield in their native Jones County, Mississippi. Once there, he establishes himself as a protector and educator of those women, children and slaves being preyed upon by Government tax collectors. There follow plentiful, sporadically involving Robin Hood adventures in which Newt trains the locals up to guard their corn, the powers-that-be seize said corn, only for our merry band of outlaws to take the corn back at gunpoint.
Just as we’re settling into this altogether simplistic reading of history, a jolting “85 years later” card yanks us into a Harper Lee-like courtroom drama involving one of Knight’s descendants, accused of breaching segregation laws. You might see this great leap forwards as a sign of ambition on co-writer/director Gary Ross’s part, a desire to tell The Whole American Story while underlining how little has changed in the way the state treats its citizens. Yet it also smacks of behind-the-scenes panic: that the filmmakers sensed having Matt McConaughey running about a forest bears scant relation to contemporary race-relations.
Either way, it’s typical of a film that at every juncture strains to give us more than McQueen’s film did: more drama, more extras, more production design, more bodies hanging from trees, and many more ways to lionise its protagonist, including a most convivial mid-film hog roast. (More catering!) There are points when Free State of Jones stands still and allows us to feel those trace elements of history in its bones, the past running along its spine: a few scenes between McConaughey and escaped slave Mahershala Ali, the implied attempts of housegirl Gugu Mbatha-Raw to keep her master at arm’s length.
Yet as multiplex-bound awards bait, stillness and seriousness just aren’t in this film’s blood: Ross would rather contrive a mock-funeral ambush – pure spaghetti Western, complete with war widows leaping out of coffins to gun down their adversaries – where McQueen mournfully knew he had more than enough of our own dubious heritage to work and confront us with. Given this restlessness, the general sense of a film pulling in several directions simultaneously, it’s perhaps no wonder it can’t ever seem to get its own story quite right.
Ross presumably pitched Free State of Jones as another well-intentioned history lesson, inviting us to cheer this chiselled white dude as he came to look out for all those around him. On screen, though, you could be forgiven for seeing in Knight the origins of all those militia movement who’ve retreated to the wilds to take up arms against the State. Possibly a few bets were hedged in an attempt to appeal to bleeding hearts and the American heartlands alike, but the final product demands we turn a blind eye to its rampant gun fetishism. (More collateral damage!)
It wouldn’t be too hard to envision a version of this story with a younger Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson in the lead role, and in both cases it would almost certainly have turned out more forceful than the tepid, overlong compromise we’ve ended up with. There is a danger with imposing the values of 2016 on the 1860s, and seeing the heroism we want to see there: this messy episode winds up saying far less about the past than it does about our present moment, one when it’s often unclear whether society’s coming good, or simply going to hell in a handcart.
Free State of Jones is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.