Half-cocked 'epicness' and unfulfilled ambition in Free State Of Jones

At one-hundred and thirty-nine minutes there is no danger of Free State Of Jones being called 'slight'. Gary Ross' film is on the 'long and weighty' side of things, conceived, perhaps, for Oscar contention.

It wasn't to be. The civil war Drama took just $20 million at the US box office ($25 million worldwide), against a production budget of $50 million. It joined a legion of films which, despite a popular historical subject and major star (Matthew McConaughey), failed to capture the imagination of cinemagoers.

The length of the film speaks to one of the reasons why, one of the many internal conflicts at the film's heart, which mean that it almost defies standard review logic. Good luck attempting to give Free State Of Jones a star rating. Some elements are superb. Others are borderline amateur. One-hundred and thirty-nine minutes, for example, speaks to a underlying commitment anxiety. This is an epic. The film's narrative spreads several years of the civil war and jumps forwards to the 1940s (by implication, the themes the film explicitly deal with go further than that). One-hundred and thirty-nine minutes isn't long enough to do that. Characters get completely lost. Many points of the narrative receive insubstantial examination.

There's no greater representation of the film's problems than Keri Russell's Serena, wife to McConaughey's Newton Knight. Russell is a recognisable face and, early on, a focus, personifying the problems faced by many of the film's female characters as their men are rounded up by the Confederates. There's what seems to be a key sequence for Newton and Serena, where their child falls ill, and then that's it; Serena disappears from the narrative and, in time, it becomes clear that the whole affair was a setup for Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who heals the child.

Until... Serena returns, completely out of the blue late on, with limited explanation of why she left to begin with, what she has been doing for, apparently, several years and why she is now back. If the film had committed to its own scope then perhaps we could have spent time with Serena's narrative as well and seen the period from her point of view. As it is, she is lost.

The film also occupies the uncomfortable sub-genre of liberal narratives which display their liberality by having a white protagonist recount to us what is largely African-American history. Whilst Newton Knight is undoubtedly an important character in his own time, he is important because he is documented and covered in the annals. Many others are not. Ross attempts to address this with a smattering of supporting characters who are again ill-served by the editing of the script (whether in pre or post production). In another world Mahershala Ali wins his Oscar for this film and not Moonlight. In fact, in another world Ali is the lead character, the story told from his perspective. Again, it wasn't to be and the balance is off.

The 1940s scenes will bear the brunt of most people's ire towards the film. They are odd. The syntax of how they are interwoven into the narrative is jarring, the lead in this section is not Matthew McConaughey and their real reason for existence isn't offered until the mid-way point, at best, and that's only for viewers who 'spot' where the court case on show is going.

Again though, you can see why they are there. Free State Of Jones, representative of its time though it is, is also out of time. It is our time and its own and the 1940s; representing and representative of civil liberties which still do not exist in anywhere near an adequate enough form. Unfortunately that straddling of time zones, that universal message, is too much for this film to bear. Frustratingly however, it does come close to taking the weight.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.


  1. If you read the reviews of critics, Free State of Jones was (for them) a disappointing film which concentrated on a real-life character who was white, rather than a composite, fictional character who was black. Which would have been a whole other film.

    If you read the assessment of both African-American and white historians, it is essential viewing dealing as it does with Southern Unionists (there were 100,000 Southerners who crossed over to fight for the Union, there were Union strongholds throughout the South - Free State of Jones being the one with the most dramatic possibilities probably). And it addresses Reconstruction a tragic period which was last presented in DW Griffith's pro-KKK film Birth of a Nation.

    And the vast majority of critics seemed unaware that the Free State was a socialist society with both racial and gender equality.

    The filmmaker chose to honor historians and not film critics. I think he saw the film as destined to be played in high school American history classes rather than in multiplexes.

    1. Really interesting points Sadie and I accept some of those as considered positives, which I failed to pick out - thank you for bothering to leave it; you have certainly made me think further about the film.

      I think there's a decent amount there that reflects some of my points though. Addressing the fact that the Free State was a socialist system, for example, is touched on in the film, but not to the degree that I would argue that subject warrants. Ditto the wider presence of Southerners within the Union. Perhaps I'm being too critical, but my point was that the film is in position to address all of that... but instead pays much of it lip service.

      Perhaps the film can or should be seen as a 'starters guide to...' rather than 'definitive history of...'. I can see how that could be a positive, but for me the latter is a loftier target and precisely where the film fails to get to.