‘Free State of Jones’ is an Oppressively Awful Regime

GameStop, Inc.


America’s history of white supremacism is a stain on our nation’s legacy. It’s an ugly topic to contextualize, and American society is still trying to grapple with the demons of the past as we’re constantly reminded that they’ve never really gone away, only gotten better at hiding. We can always look to history to try and inform the present or find an inspirational figure to remind us that not everything and everyone in the nation’s complex history was complicit in the darkest chapters. The new movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Free State of Jones, is so invested in trying to build the legend of an overlooked historical figure that took a stand for a just cause that it entirely forgets to be a movie at all. Intended to be a historical epic, Free State of Jones is an overwrought, overlong exercise in boredom and inept storytelling.

Director Gary Ross’ film takes place over the span of 14 years (from 1862-76) with bewildering cutaways to a trial in 1948. In 1862, Newton Knight (McConaughey) is fighting for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. When a young family member is killed on the front lines, Newton deserts the war and returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi. Being a deserter puts a death sentence on Newton’s head, so he hides with his wife Serena (Keri Russell). As the Confederates seize the property of their constituents to aid the war effort, Newton helps the common folk retain their property. After taking refuge in the nearby swamp with a number of slaves in hiding, Newton Knight builds a community of Confederate deserters and freed slaves. With the infamy becoming too much, Serena leaves their home. Over the years, Newton and his band of outcasts strike at the heart of the Confederacy with the naïve hope for a better America for all.

The baffling cutaways to 1948 are to a trial for Newton’s great-grandson Davis (Brian Lee Franklin) for an unlawful interracial marriage because he his descendant of the child that Newton had with the freed slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who became his common law wife after the departure of his first wife. This is all intended to set up some sort of parallel between the two, presenting the descendant as paying the price for the deeds of his great-grandfather. But Free State of Jones is such a clumsily constructed film that these time hops are confusing and only bloat the film’s already lengthy running time.

From start to finish, Free State of Jones is a movie that’s always trying to bite off more than it can chew. Any number of the film’s key plot elements could’ve made adequate movies on their own, but Gary Ross’ script (from a story by Leonard Hartman) crams a fraction of each into this uninteresting hodgepodge of history. For example, the story of Moses (Mahershala Ali), an escaped slave who befriend Newton, carries a much more interesting character arc than the film’s lead. Just the horrific experiences of this character and his grisly fate would’ve made a leaner, more thematically compelling movie instead of operating as a subplot in a bloated mess. There’s an assorted variety of subplots and supporting characters that are equally ineffective and obscured.

Everything about Free State of Jones feels like it was a TV miniseries trimmed down to the running time of an overlong movie. Visually it has the panache of a made-for-TV movie, most of the shots seemingly composed for home viewing. The movie also has a very episodic approach which always works to its detriment. It’s hard to say that this movie has a beginning, middle, and end as much as it simply assembled of middle segments punctuated with some title cards and closing credits. Free State of Jones really tries to tell an expansive story of the consequences of one man’s fight against America’s history of white supremacy, yet lacks the skills behind the camera to make any of its grand ambition connect to the audience. Like our egregiously long and absurd election cycle, it’s more like to inspire apathy than fiery passion.

Against my own self-interest, I resisted the urges to walk out of Free State of Jones. “Life’s too short for this,” kept circling my mind as the story dragged on and on with no end (or beginning) in sight. A potentially robust political allegory is lost in an incompetently constructed narrative. Free State of Jones is an oppressive regime, one of the most punishing cinematic experiences of the year.

Free State of Jones
  • Overall Score


An overwrought and overlong epic of boredom, Free State of Jones wastes a decent performance from Matthew McConaughey in what plays out like a TV miniseries edited down to a movie.

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