Written by Matt Gilbert
Free State of Jones was doomed by its release date and was immediately destined to fall into one of two categories: it could either be a powerful and gripping untold story from the Civil War era that released too early and would be tragically overlooked when Oscar nominations come round, or it would be the all-too-common brand of historical biodrama that thinks it has an important point to make but finds itself overlong, unevenly written and ultimately making a big noise amounting to nothing.
Gary Ross’ latest picture is unquestionably the latter.
Ross feels like a director still trying very hard to win his first Oscar yet becomes increasingly farther from it with each of his directed projects. How is it that the writer and director of such a near-perfect movie as Pleasantville, his first ever, can strike out so completely? How is it that a man can create something so full of beauty and layers and timelessness, and that the same man could produce something so colorlessly devoid of all three 18 years later? We may never know, but it may be time to take a hard look at whether Gary Ross truly is the brilliant filmmaker we may have once thought he was.
Free State of Jones is a chore. It is the kind of movie so dull and sapped of virtually all nuance that just the mere act of thinking about it afterwards feels like giving it more credit and attention than it deserves. It takes its own sweet time introducing its key characters and arcs and devolves from “ragtag group of runaways and deserters boldly defy government in the name of freedom” to “white man becomes savior to African-Americans in evil, evil South.”
Whether the focus is on resisting the Confederate army or outlining the systemic racism of the Reconstruction era, there is nothing in the story to drive the plot forward. For the first half it seems to be the contrast of the success of the Free Men of Jones County contrast against the weakening army and the inevitable confrontation between the two, but then the war ends and the whole movie seems to fly off the rails. It never says or implies whether the Free State of Jones was disbanded or continued after the war, and becomes wholly preoccupied with the deliberate disenfranchisement and violence against black citizens stretching all the way to the protagonist’s grandson marrying a white woman 85 years later. It shows nothing anyone with a basic knowledge of 19th century southern racial politics wouldn’t know already, yet flaunts these scenes like it is presenting it to you for the first time.
What’s more disappointing is how the film treats the action setting up Newton Knight’s desertion and defiance of the Confederate States as a basic establishing beat rather than its own conflict. More specifically, early on the film seems to ask the question “how much can an army take from its people before it’s no longer protecting them?” This is the question that drives the conflict of the film’s first hour, but the movie chooses to act like it is irrelevant. Therefore, the Confederate officers are reduced to uninteresting, one-dimensional antagonists who exist to be as inhumanly cruel to the heroes as possible. The battle in which the leaders of the two armies finally confront one another is thrilling and delivers considerable impact, but the result of it returns things to the status quo and raises the serious questions of why this wasn’t the climax of the movie and why it insists on continuing for another hour.
Aside from a deeply problematic script and some more than questionable artistic choices throughout, Free State of Jones has nothing to even make itself stand out. No performance is particularly bad, nor is it memorable. The soundtrack is bland and uninspired by the rich time period. Even the battle scenes, while impressive, leave us with nothing that hasn’t been better executed in over a dozen war movies from different eras. The true story of Jones County may be incredible, but this adaptation is far from the epic its real life characters probably deserved. The lasting impression calls to mind the experience of a 140-minute history lecture from a thoroughly unengaged teacher.