More noise than signal

Free State of Jones

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

In Britain, we’re not taught a great deal about the American Civil War, or at least not when I was at school. So, while it’s surely impossible not to know the broad strokes of on e of the Former Colonies’ defining events, there’s a lot of detail left to uncover for the interested. One such intriguing detail is told in the supposedly true story of the Free State of Jones, although I feel it necessary to give the disclaimer that from a brief bit of fact-checking there appears to be no good facts to check on most of this, record-keeping apparently not being a priority here. No-one seems to be vociferously denouncing it, at least, so let’s just take this on face value.

It doesn’t seem like Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) has ever been particularly on board with the aims of the South in the Civil war, but he’s certainly not once they conscript his terrified, far-too young brother into the Battle of Corinth, where he promptly catches a bullet. He deserts and heads back to his family on a poor farm, only to find that Confederate soldiers are confiscating the lion’s share of their, and everyone else’s, produce as tax in order to feed their war machine. This offends Knight’s sensibilities, who believes you should have the right to the produce of your own land, and he starts to rebel against this.

He successfully stands the tax collectors off, but as a known deserter he’s forced to flee to the relative safety of the swamps, where no cavalryman dares to tread. There he meets Moses (Mahershala Ali) and a small contingent of runaway slaves, whom he quickly bonds with. He was guided to safety in part by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave who had previously cared for and perhaps saved his child’s life, with the town’s doctor called away on war duty. Rachel and Knight also form a relationship, eventually marrying, or as close as was possible in the dark-ages of race relations.

With the war becoming more brutal, this increases both the number of deserters finding their way to the swamps and the Confederate tax collectors demands, prompting Knight and his company of irregulars to take a more active role in defending poor farmers from the Confederate bully boys, in turn drawing more attention from the Army, and so on, and so forth.

The story doesn’t end with the Civil War, instead showing select events during the Reconstruction, and it’s also intercut with a court case of Knight’s great-great-great-grandson, which shows that the dark-ages of race relations lasted a lot longer than anyone would think possible in the South.

Now, to an extent it’s White Saviour narrative by the numbers, but I feel a little more comfortable with this when, firstly, it’s at least supposed to be a reflection of what actually happened, and secondly, particularly in the Reconstruction era Moses is shown as fulfilling more of a leadership role than Knight does, at least until his murder.

That aside, I watched most of the first ninety minutes or so of Free State of Jones in quiet bemusement at the generally poor regard in which this is critically held, and its box office bellyflop. McConaughey cuts an effective and sympathetic character, and the early battle scenes are really effectively handled. Knight is an interesting and compelling character, and he forges interesting relationships with Rachel and Moses. It all seemed to be going quite swimmingly.

It’s the final stretches where the film falls short, sadly. In ways I supposed constricted by reality, there’s no definite endpoint for Knight or any of the ideals that he was fighting for. This does rather mean that the narrative gets away from the film – it’s doing a reasonably enough job of truncating the civil war period while still giving what feels, at least, to be a reasonable accounting, but after the South’s surrender it turns into a series of vignettes strewn throughout the years, each somehow more depressing than the last.

It all feels a little hectic, a little whistle-stop, and a little desensitising -it tries to pack quite a lot into a small space of time, and it rather dilutes the message rather than concentrating it. It’s an unfocussed and rather anti-climactic end, particularly annoying given the good work it does earlier on. It just fizzles out and stops, rather than hitting an obvious end. I suppose that reflects the facts on the ground, race relations being something of a work-in-progress to put it mildly, but that doesn’t help its case as a film.

By no means a bad film, but feels rather like a missed opportunity.