What Free State of Jones gets right is the details. For instance, Matthew McConaughey’s prosthetic teeth are truly repugnant, as was the style of the time. Grey-yellow and rotting, they certainly mirrored the society that spawned McConaughey’s Confederate deserter, Newton Knight—as well as establishing a clear sense of time and place
These little touches, from the flintlocks to the spiked necklaces that runaway slaves were forced to endure, all speak to a commitment to detail necessary these days to sell any period piece, particularly one so well documented as the American Civil War.
Where Free State of Jones falls short is in the more ephemeral aspects of a story that tries to present a revisionist history of the Southern experience. Knight (and tell me that isn’t a surname that has some specific weight for a white Southerner) led an internal revolt in the Confederate South during the Civil War. After deserting his unit and returning to his Mississippi home, Knight is confronted by the deprivations inflicted by the local Confederate detachment. Soon he is leading a ragtag militia of escaped slaves, local farmers and fellow deserters.
Hollywood is facing some difficult choices these days—most of which are of their own making. Audiences less and less interested in watching films where white males are doing the Moses thing—leading the poor and disenfranchised to a new world. So casting McConaughey as an enlightened sharecropper might have made sense ten, maybe even five, years ago, but now it feels tone deaf and out of step (especially when compared to something like the-soon-to-be-released Sundance darling Birth of a Nation).
It’s not that the story isn’t intrinsically interesting, but Free State of Jones is never agile enough to thread the sort of needles necessary to avoid feeling mawkish and retrograde. The spotlight that follows Knight throughout the film means that too much of the story revolves around his redemption and not nearly enough on those for whom the whole exercise is much more than an abstract moral choice.
There were any number of characters that would have been equally compelling and also would have presented a fresh perspective. Newton’s complicated domestic circumstance—his estranged wife returning years after he had been living common law with a former slave—presented an excellent jumping off point for an entirely different version of this story. Either one of their POV’s would have presented some fascinating narrative opportunities.
Instead what we got was a kind of paint by numbers script, which includes a needlessly complicated framing device involving a 20th century trial. The whole thing felt threadbare and tacked on.
Free State of Jones finally devolves into a series of tableaux that attempt to describe the Reconstructionist Southern experience for people of color—all the while staying firmly affixed to Knight and his more mundane domestic tribulations.
If there had been more of a commitment to the ugly, difficult truths that your work represented, Free State of Jones may have managed to break from the mold it otherwise so thoroughly inhabited. Instead its entirely cosmetic approach to complex issues failed to rise to your exacting, if unattractive, standards.