The last few years have seen a bumper crop of Western themed films, from the deliberate pacing of Slow West, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight to the insanity of The Ridiculous 6. With FREE STATE OF JONES, writer/director Gary Ross follows the tradition of The Ox-Bow Incident (1946) by showing that the form can be more than simple period recreation or gunslinging, but also comment on issues that are still trending. The mix isn’t always an even one, but the imagery will linger long after the lyrical credits roll.
Based on the true story of an armed rebellion against the Confederacy led by Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), the film begins in the aftermath of the 1862 Battle of Corinth, where a disillusioned Knight leaves the war to return to his homestead and wife Serena (Keri Russell). As the seeds of dissent grow, thanks to Confederate troops seizing crops and livestock from their own people, the citizen of Jones County gather together to form their own militia and fight the powers that be. During this time, Knight starts a relationship with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the saga of their great-grandson Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) fighting Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1940s is peppered throughout the narrative.
Previously the subject of George Marshall’s Tap Roots (1948), there is undoubtedly an important message that Ross is conveying. From the bloody and brutal opening moments of the film, where faces are blown off and literal buckets of blood are emptied, there’s a strong line about the futility of war. What’s surprising about FREE STATE OF JONES is how much of history it tries to encompass, examining the titular county past the end of the war and into the “lawful apprenticeship” period that followed the abolition of slavery in the United States. This ambitious story tackles too much, leading to an uneven tone overall. On the other hand it’s also one of the rare examples of a film not simply being self-satisfied with a single small victory in a forgotten period of history.
Despite the hardcore opening, much of Ross’ film is a contemplative series of scenes set in the swamps and woods of Mississippi. Benoît Delhomme’s beautiful photography depicts a gorgeous setting slowly being ravished and trashed. The languid pacing allows for McConaughey in particular to have intense character moments, punctuated by the expected motivational speeches. The lingering shots of the swamps, cut together with actual archival footage, photos and informational text on screen combines to bring us something between Terrence Malick and a Ken Burns documentary.
Like the superior Glory before it, there’s undoubtedly an element of the “white saviour” narrative to FREE STATE OF JONES that has been highly debated since its release. There’s some confusing politics on display too, with the strong case for small government running right up against the liberal messages about equality and civil rights. Using this relatively obscure moment in history as a catalyst for a broader conversation, Ross’ film does make us consider our own places in history, and how our small actions and attitudes will be seen a century from now.
2016 | US | DIR: Gary Ross | WRITERS: Gary Ross (Story: Leonard Hartman) | CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali | DISTRIBUTOR: StudioCanal (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes