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Review: Civil War-era “Free State of Jones” overwhelms with sermons on equality

Matthew McConaughey, left, stars in "Free State of Jones."
Matthew McConaughey, left, stars in "Free State of Jones." STX Entertainment

What It's About: A remarkable true story set in Mississippi during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, "Free State of Jones" is an earnest effort that suffers from misguided execution.

The historical drama is too sprawling — overbearing, dense with enough story for two parts, and heaped with sermons on equality to emphasize its points over and over. It is as if the movie's script was written in all capital letters.

A poor farmer and Confederate soldier, Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) sours on the war after seeing the futility of the South's battles. His rage escalates as he is surrounded by pointless deaths and the favoritism towards wealthy slave-owners' sons. His hard-working kin and fellow struggling farmers lose their property, livestock and crops to thoughtless rebel raiders.

Hunted as a deserter, a savage dog attack sends Newt into the swamp to hide, where he is taken in by kind black slaves. His friendship with a young woman servant, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), turns into a lifelong love.

Encouraged by support, he takes a stand, and leads his community to secede from the Confederacy. But it's not without sacrifice and grief. Those untrustworthy pillagers don't take kindly to opposition.

Despite losing the war, Mississippi is not so accepting of emancipation, and makes life difficult for the free men of color. The government must intervene, but the Ku Klux Klan's ugly racism is a formidable presence.

Newt fights the good fight for as long as he can, and that righteous spirit is carried over in future generations.

Oh, we're clear on the intentions. But the overly long film can't help itself from repeating its message ad naseum.

Performances: McConaughey, in full savior mode, is a passionate Newt Knight. He's matched by a strong performance from Mahershala Ali ("The Hunger Games: Mockingjay," Parts 1 and 2) as the slave Moses.

But their intensity can only go so far in a film weakened by overstuffed elements and heavy-handed direction.

The two women in Knight's life are solid, too — Gugu Mbatha-Raw as slave Rachel and Keri Russell as his wife Serena.

The supporting cast sports many straggly, unruly beards, so some men are hard to distinguish. Christopher Berry stands out as Jasper, Newt’s right-hand man. Thomas Francis Murphy is despicable as the villain Elias Hood, the Confederate commander who causes unnecessary tragedy.

What Works: As befitting an old-fashioned epic, the cinematography is sweeping and the production authentic-looking.

The opening battle scenes are well-done and memorable, although not for the squeamish. The realistic brutality is gruesome with copious amounts of blood everywhere and lingering shots of grisly injuries.

The time period is enhanced by its gritty, grimy feel.

What Doesn't Work: Director-writer Gary Ross ("The Hunger Games") is so passionate about this story that he doesn't get out of its way —his intensity colors his judgment, and the amount of details is overwhelming.

The obstacles are plentiful, and the number of characters is cumbersome. Succinct editing would have made this unwieldy subject matter easier to follow — and swallow, for its tendency to deify Newt and the frequent speechifying becomes problematic.

A modern-day story subplot is jarring and confusing, taking us out of the 19th-century action.

It's the kind of movie Hollywood could have made in the 1940s with Henry Fonda as Newt. But it still would be turgid and interminable.

“Free State of Jones”

  • Director: Gary Ross
  • Starring: Matthew McConaughey
  • Rated: R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
  • Length: 2:19
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