Free State of Jones Review
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Civil War movies are quite common—common enough, in fact, that you might think that you’ve seen every possible angle of the War Between the States. But director Gary Ross manages to introduce audiences to a new and intriguing true story in his Civil War drama Free State of Jones.

Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer from Mississippi who works as a nurse for the Confederate army until his nephew’s death causes him to desert. On returning home to his family, he sees how the army is taking almost everything from those left behind, and he decides to help them fight back. In doing so, however, he becomes a wanted man, and he’s forced to hide in the swamp with a band of runaway slaves. But as their numbers grow, they begin to fight back against the Confederate officers and rich plantation owners who are taking advantage of the poor.

  
 
This Civil War-era Robin Hood story covers a whole lot of ground—from Knight’s experiences in the army to his battles against the Confederates to his continuing fight for rights for all men after the war. It even jumps ahead 85 years to cover a court case regarding the ancestry of his great-grandson. For that reason, this 140-minute drama tends to feel long and rambling and rather jumbled, too. Some of the details can be rather hard to follow, and some of the storytelling choices seem perplexing.

Beyond the flaws and missteps, however, there’s a fascinating story to be told here. On one hand, it’s a gritty war movie, offering a glimpse into the brutal realities of war—both of life on the front lines and the hardships faced by those who remain behind. It also follows a motley group of farmers and runaways who decided to fight back. And it shows how the freed slaves’ hope for a brighter future was quickly shattered by hatred and injustice in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation.

Sure, the film often feels like a history lesson, but it’s a pretty striking history lesson. It’s well made, immersing audiences into the sights and sounds of the South during the Civil War. And it’s filled with standout performances—especially from McConaughey, who’s strong and determined and commanding as the leader of this ragtag band. Though it isn’t exactly a moving and memorable Civil War drama, it’s still an eye-opening one.

Free State of Jones definitely could have been a bolder and better organized film—and it could have been a lot shorter, too—but its noteworthy cast has an intriguing story to tell. So if you enjoy delving deeper into the past, this challenging exploration of the war-torn South will teach you more about a significant time in our nation’s history—and those who fought for justice and equality.


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