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Matthew McConaughey goes the period piece route in “Free State of Jones”

It’s been interesting watching Matthew McConaughey make project decisions after winning his Academy Award. He has gone big with epics like Interstellar and gone small with the still unreleased Sea of Trees, but this week he’s trying something new. Basically, he’s attempting to bring back the Civil War film with Free State of Jones. This type of movie is rarely done right and usually is super dry, so it’s a tall order, but starring one of our most exciting actors right now, there’s a chance, right? Well, this turns out to be a total bore, plodding and sometimes strangely tone deaf to the racial dynamics on display. The saving grace is McConaughey though, even if you can’t quite see what he saw in this material. There’s moments of entertainment and righteous indignation, but too often it’s just a poorly thought out history lesson.

The film is a Civil War set drama, centering on a poor Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight (McConaughey). Newt is a medic for the Confederacy, but is anti slavery and deserts, heading home to tend to his family. The horrors of war and the way the South treats the poor and blacks stirs something in Newt though, and soon he’s slowly organizing a rebellion of sorts. Eventually, the county of Jones is being treated as its own free state, giving, you know, the movie its title. There’s a lot of lecturing going on though, more so than is necessary. Also, I’ve never seen more on screen text than in Free State of Jones, which is a super dry choice that stops any momentum this flick is able to generate. Gary Ross co-writes with Leonard Hartman and directs, while there’s a large group of supporting players behind McConaughey. They include Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Joe Chrest, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, and more. Cinematography is by the very underrated Benoît Delhomme.

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Despite my issues, I will praise McConaughey’s work and some of the visuals on display. Awards wise, Free State of Jones is pretty much a bust, though that kind of goes without saying when you have a movie that isn’t going to be getting great reviews. It has delusions of grandeur, but aside from the occasional visual elements and McConaughey, it just plods along. At two hours and twenty minutes, it’s a chore, always seeming to add another scene that doesn’t further the plot. There’s also a bizarre subplot set in the 20th century that just does not work at all. Ross tries his best and his heart is in the right place, but the only real success here is in the performance of McConaughey, which isn’t one of his absolute best either. It might crack his top ten, but definitely not his top five, for what that’s worth.

Basically, tomorrow you can see a mostly forgotten about moment in history come to life with Free State of Jones. It’s dry and mostly a tone deaf lecture, but if you’re a junkie for the Civil War, I’m sure you can find something to latch on to here. It’s not awful, mind you, but it’s also not nearly as good as it could have been, especially considering Ross’ talents. There’s a version of this story that would be an Oscar vehicle, and while this one is nowhere near that level, it’ll be an interesting test of McConaughey’s star power. Give it a shot if it seems like your thing. Honestly, there’s no reason to avoid it, but it’s nothing to write home about either…

Be sure to check out Free State of Jones, in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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