War, in general, is a difficult situation for a film. Director Gary Ross is no stranger to difficult situations in his films. Be it, the violence of children killing other children in The Hunger Games, or the racism undertones in Pleasantville. And he continues this trend with the civil war in his latest film, Free State Of Jones. We are pulled into the Battle of Corinth with Union soldiers literally marching over the bodies of their comrades left on the ground as the march to meet their enemy. We’re essentially seeing the focus of the film, Newton Knight, and his world as he pulls a very young wound soldier off of the field during the battle. Ross does not shy away from the violence of war, or the damage period weapons can do to a man’s face in a battle that trumps the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Ross continues bringing the violence of the war to the forefront when Knight gets the soldier to the med tent to fake the young soldier as a captain so he can looked at. Ross has essentially used the violence of war to set up Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. You don’t need to struggle to understand Knight’s choices because you know the man through the actions he takes from what he sees on that field.
The violence in this film can be quite strong at times. To Ross’s credit, he does a great job of is using the violence to develop character and tell a story. You can feel shocked by some scenes, war but that’s the point. War and racism aren’t supposed to be easy subjects. And more to his credit, Ross doesn’t beat around the bush with either subject.
Because of his experiences in battle Ross and McConaughey do a fantastic job of creating conflict in Knight. McConaughey plays him with a great deal of control with anger underneath it. He’s a man who just wants to live his life and his pulled back into conflict. What McConaughey does best is we never get the feeling like Knight wanted to be who he is. We always feel like he’s just a man, a regular man, that’s forced into doing what he thinks is right. And how is actions directly effect his life in ways that you can relate to when his wife and infant son kick him out of his home. This is one of the brilliant things Ross has done with this film, for all of these people that we remember over a century later, they’re nothing more than regular people.
The violence remains prevalent throughout the film but is never as graphic as the opening battle. Ross smartly uses the violence to push the story and the choices McConaughey and his army have to make. Ross’s shooting style leads him to frame his characters tightly in a Sergio Leone-style close up. At times, this works, in conflict between Knight and the talented Bill Tangradi’s Lt. Barbour. But a lot of the times, the beauty of the American south is completely lost as we follow these people throughout their fight.
Ross never allows his ensemble cast to fade into the background or give up ground to McConaughey. The relationships are allowed to build so the relationships feel natural. Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings out the breakout performance of the film as the love interest to Knight in the former slave Rachel. She embodies the hope and strength that Knight inspires. And inspires in us true sympathy playing someone who has never lived as a human being should. Mahershala Ali’s Moses is a family man of love and passion. The bond that Ross allows to form between the natural chemistry between McConaughey and Ali is truly endearing and creates the backbone for Knight’s journey through out this story.
The story builds with Knight’s army leading to the creation of the free state of Jones. A place where all men are treated equally. Ross, smartly, never spends too much time in the same place as time passes quickly in this film. And throughout this passage of time, Ross intermixes photographs from the period, pushing home that this film actually happened. As well, it helps drive home that these were people these actors are portraying once existed. The tone through the film is always one of speed, which hampers the film in a regard – that’s the problem when you’re covering 6 years in the time spend of feature-length films. But Ross’s character-driven shooting style allows you to stay with these characters as they grow through these time jumps and it feels less jarring when they happen.
This movie is very well directed and brilliantly acted to some great writing and especially dialogue. And Ross finds an interesting way around what any semi-autobiographical film adaptation inevitably suffers from – the ending. The film is set in the events of 1862 – 1867. But there is a side story that’s set 80 years later in Mississippi where the descendant of Newton, Davis Knight, played by Brian Lee Franklin. Davis is fighting a court battle to make his marriage legal because, despite his caucasian skin, he’s still close enough to his great, great grandmother, Rachel to be considered coloured under Mississippi law. We flash briefly in and out of this story, sadly not enough to be able to get behind Davis as he’s given the choice of publicly admitting he was wrong for fighting the law and getting married or keep his marriage and go to jail. This is intercut with Newton Knight spending the rest of his days on his farm living the comfortable life he’s wanted this whole time with Rachel.
What Ross has done is give us an ending that gives dual meanings. This ending can feel quite depressing in the sense that the film’s ultimate message is saying the human race will never change. But you see the actions of Newton Knight. The actions of his descendant, Davis, and you realize that Ross is saying that no matter how wrong the human race gets, there’s always going to be people that will do the right thing.
The film isn’t perfect but Ross’s experience, with a talented cast, has helped him to craft a solid film who’s message is just as prevalent today as it was in 1862. McConaughey has again proven why he’s one of this generations character actors. On the McConaughey rating scale; I would give this movie four “Alright, alright, alright’s” out of five. Otherwise known on a traditional rating system as 4 out of 5 stars.