[Screen It]


(2016) (Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) (R)

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Drama/Action: A disillusioned medic goes AWOL during the Civil War and then takes on the Confederacy with his growing band of supporters.
It's 1862 and Newton Knight (MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY) is a Mississippi farmer working as a medic at a Confederate Army field hospital tending to the injured and dying. When a boy related to him, Daniel (JACOB LOFLAND), ends up killed in battle, Newton goes AWOL to return the boy's body to his family, stopping along the way to see his wife, Serena (KERI RUSSELL), and young son. Between him being wanted and the Confederates confiscating food and possession from the various farms across Jones County, she leaves with the boy. With him now wanted for desertion and more, the friendly locals help get Newton out of harm's way, and that's mainly to a dense swamp.

Delivered there by the slave George (TROY HOGAN), Newton is tended to by an escaped slave, Moses (MAHERSHALA ALI), who lives there with a small number of other such men. They're brought supplies by George as well as Rachel (GUGU MBATHA-RAW), a slave who works on a local plantation and is the bedroom favorite of its white owner. With things going badly for those fighting for the South, desertions increase, with Newton's friends Jasper (CHRISTOPHER BERRY) and Will (SEAN BRIDGERS) soon joining him, Moses and the rest in a commune sort of existence.

But Newton isn't content with simply living there, especially when there are wrongs to be avenged, including striking back at Lt. Barbour (BILL TANGRADI) and his small band of men who take more from civilians than is allowed by law. Those raids eventually draw the attention of Col. Hood (THOMAS FRANCIS MURPHY) who realizes they'll be ambushed should they head into the swamp, and thus tries to wait him out.

But Newton and his growing forces strike back and continue their rebellion against the Confederacy, winning more battles and taking control of increasing amounts of land. As they continue on that quest, they must contend with growing numbers of Confederate forces sent their way. And as that occurs, the story occasionally switches to one of Newton's descendants in the 1940s, Davis Knight (BRIAN LEE FRANKLIN), having to face possible jail time when it's discovered his partial black bloodline violates the law in terms of his marriage to a white woman.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
There's an old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It's a loose translation of what Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote back in 1849, and while I don't know the context of his proclamation, it's remained pretty much constant and true during the intervening century and a half plus since then.

Despite the changes in technology, medicine, government and such, people still have the same sorts of hopes and fears regarding themselves and their loved ones. And despite all of our advances, two of our greatest scourges, racism and war, still exist and mostly affect the poor.

That point is driven home, symbolically, in of all things a Civil War movie about a little-known true event (at least outside of historians). In it, a member of the Confederate Army deserts his post, befriends a small group of escaped slaves living in a swamp, and becomes a Robin Hood type figure fighting the good fight for the oppressed and abused. All of that and more is portrayed in "Free State of Jones," named after the Mississippi county where most of the drama and action takes place during the years of "northern aggression" and then some subsequent ones thereafter.

The true life events are certainly fascinating, but the film adaptation of them is something of a mixed bag. As written and directed by Gary Ross ("The Hunger Games," "Seabiscuit"), the film is both too short and too long. How can that be, you might ask. Well, despite clocking in at around 140 minutes, there are too many characters and storylines to fit into that set length.

As a result, much of the material feels shortchanged and not given its cinematic due. That superficiality and episodic nature thus don't always engage as fully as it should, meaning the movie ends up feeling long. At the same time, it obviously begs for more time to tell its tale, and the fact that it wasn't turned into a mini-series will likely leave many viewers feeling that it's simultaneously too short.

And then there are various other issues that bedevil the project. The most obvious is the white-washing, if you will, of racial and gender acceptance in the protagonist's self-made commune. Aside from a few brief bits stemming from the group's token racist, everyone gets along, something that seems more like modern revisionism or wish fulfillment rather than historical realism.

There are also unexplained and unexplored bits. The most notable being Newton (Matthew McConaughey, certainly looking the part and definitely the best thing in the pic) taking up with a slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) while still married to his wife (Keri Russell) who's gone AWOL from their farm.

He doesn't seem to mind that she's left with their boy (a reaction that seems unlikely considering the rest of the way he operates, such as saving the boy of a former slave from a forced "apprenticeship" on a cotton farm), while she doesn't seem too concerned that he's shacked up and had a child with a slave. They're all fine living together as a big, interracial kumbaya family, something that's accepted today but would have gotten you lynched in the post-Civil War south.

All of that is occasionally interrupted by a scene set in the 1940s where Newton's great-grandson (Brian Lee Franklin) is having to contend with some "colored" blood in his lineage, meaning he's unsuitable to be married to a white woman and in fact is breaking the law. I get what Ross is going for (that racism continued -- and continues -- on for decades later), but it's heavy-handed at best and clumsily inserted into the rest of the storyline.

There are some decent and even powerful moments to be found, most revolving around McConaughey's character and his emotional reaction to certain events. I just wish he and everyone else had more time to make more of that happen or, conversely, that some of the material had been jettisoned to make the pic sleeker and tighter. As it stands, "Free State of Jones" sort of ends up fighting itself and thus rates as just a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 20, 2016 / Posted June 24, 2016

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