Matthew McConaughey does his best in the story of a Confederate deserter who begins a racial utopia in the Mississippi swamps
When did the McConaissance really begin? The Texan actor, all dimples and drawl, has mostly had a career that can best be surmised with his own trademark catchphrase – alright, alright, alright. After muddling through some largely forgettable thrillers and some romcoms of wildly varying value, the actor’s career seemed to kick off in earnest sometime around... The Lincoln Lawyer? Do you even remember what that one was about? Does he? Regardless, sometime between 2011 and 2012 the right scripts, the right directors, the right motivations, and an Oscar later, the 46-year-old established himself as a master of screen acting. Why, then, are critics hailing his new film as the end of that era?
Free State of Jones, written and directed in decidedly languid style by Gary Ross, tells a fictionalised account of the life of the very real Newton Knight, a field nurse on the Confederate side of the American Civil War, but whose heart, understandably enough, is not in dying on the field so a rich man can stay wealthy. Abandoning the 1862 Battle of Corinth, he heads back to bury his cousin, eventually heading into the swamplands of Mississippi to escape capture as a deserter.
Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington and Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight in Free State of Jones [Element Pictures]
And this is where things should start to get interesting, with the polarising figure forming a new society in the bayou. Spread across a long and unwieldy structure, McConaughey’s take on Knight (who only ever gave one interview and whose personal motivations required some embellishing guess work on the part of Ross’s script) comes across as the most woken social justice warrior ever seen in 19th century Mississippi. His first spark of rebellion comes from the fury that a new rule exempts slave owners from being drafted into the war if they have 20 or more in their possession. The trope of “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” has long been used in every medium and every century of war films, but it takes on an extra level of problematic when, with relatively little development, Newton emerges as a literal white Knight, a racially-blind and all-embracing saviour of his brothers from an indentured mother.
Ross really is the problem here, entirely unwilling to settle on which story he wants to tell. Newton Knight was a fascinating character, a man who fathered 14 children with his wives, common and actual law, and who was ostracised by both black and white communities for his shared lifestyle with both women. Instead, Ross has sanded him down to a morally right bore, whose every decision falls on the correct side of history and saps the film of any kind of candor.
These problems are compounding by a gruelling running time, which papers over 14 years of history by splicing in real photographs and inventing African American substitutes who learn how to lead when following Knight’s quasi-philosophical musings and, arguably, terrorist leanings. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, the action jumps forward 83 years, where, to underline the fact that Newton’s burgeoning utopia won’t last, his grandson of forgotten number of greats is being prosecuted for marrying a white woman despite his mixed-race heritage. A fascinating footnote, and one that carries through to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to this day, but it’s a narrative decision so poorly thought through, it simply comes across as an unnecessary assuaging of white privilege and guilt.
Is this the end of the McConaissance? Hardly. For all the flaws, McConaughey still brings an earnestness to the character, sparkling more in the early scenes when the theatre of war is even less brutal than the surgical theatres beside it. He also looks awful, all grease and grime, you can practically get a whiff. Instead, Free State of Jones will be as forgotten as The Lincoln Lawyer, simply filling time until Gold comes out right in the middle of awards season, with its inevitable push for our consideration.
Free State of Jones, 15A, is released in Irish cinemas on Friday, September 30th
Verdict: ★★☆☆☆ Trying far too hard to dazzle you with its worthiness, Newton Knight’s story needed neither the embellishments nor the whitewashing.