Set during the Civil War, Free State of Jones tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.
'Free State of Jones' is Director Gary Ross's (who also wrote the screenplay) attempt to tell the story of Newton Knight, a real-life Confederate deserter in Civil War Mississippi, who took his pro-union, anti-slavery values and led a number of other army deserters and fugitive slaves in a local revolt/opposition to Confederate officers in the area. It's a piece of history we've not seen put on film before (although the 1948 flick 'Tap Roots' is loosely based on Knight's story), and it's obvious from the get-go that Ross wants to convey Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) in a big, sprawling epic kind of way.
The movie starts out strongly enough, with a powerful first act in which we're introduced to Newton as a nurse in the Confederacy, helping those who are injured in battle. However, following a tragedy involving a young family member, Newt abandons his post and returns home to his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), and young son. He isn't home for long when his child develops a high fever and he must enlist the aid of local house slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is able to bring his fever down, and whom Knight feels a great amount of gratitude toward. As the events of the movie unfold and the relationship between Newt and his wife begin to splinter, the attraction between him and Rachel begins to grow.
Newt is a man who firmly believes that the poor men of the South – none of whom are slave owners – have been asked to fight to protect the rights of the well-off. Further exasperating this viewpoint is a new law in the South that says that any owner of 20 slaves will not have to fight in the war. In fact, the more slaves owned, the less members of one's family need to enlist. Additionally, Confederate troops are coming into Knight's county and taking food, supplies, and materials from every household. They're only supposed to take 10 percent, but 10 percent is what they're actually leaving behind, if anything at all. This leads to Newt (along with a woman and her daughters) stopping a local Confederate Lieutenant (Bill Tangradi) from raiding yet another home, and results in Knight having to flee the area when the Confederates label him both as a criminal and an AWOL solider.
Sadly, after a pretty solid opening, Ross's film gets bogged down – quite literally – when Newt has to take up residence in the Mississippi swamps, where he befriends a number of other runaway slaves who are also seeing refuge there. This middle part of the movie is the weakest bit, and – in a jarring bit of editing – the movie occasionally jumps forward in time 85 years to show one of Newt's decedents fighting for his freedom in a Mississippi courtroom because he married a white woman and it's been determined that he's one-eighth black (which also kind of spoils for viewers if Newt and Rachel are going to wind up together in the past).
Gary Ross is one of my favorite directors (this is only his fourth movie, with his prior three being Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, and The Hunger Games), but this time around he isn't quite able to deliver the goods. It's not that 'Free State of Jones' isn't ambitious enough...the problem is that it's too ambitious. There's just too much Ross is trying to cover and not enough of a clear focus on what the arc of this story is. Most movies take their characters from points A to B to C in a film. Ross's hero goes from A to B to C to D to E, with short jumps over to F and G and flash-forwards to Z. Such sprawling storytelling works for historical characters like an Abraham Lincoln, where an audience knows enough about a person and his/her history to fill in the gaps, but here we don't get a really good examination of why Knight is the way he is – which is surprising because it there's one thing this movie does have, it's a lot of time...parts of it just seem to drag on indeterminately.
'Free State of Jones' isn't the first movie I've seen this year where it's more than obvious that a bit of editing would have made for a much better movie. There seems to be a growing trend in Hollywood for studios to allow their filmmakers to show all the money that they put into a film and allow them to keep most of their scenes in the final cut. Of course, a smart director knows when shorter is better (there's a reason Clint Eastwood's 'Sully" is 96 minutes, and it's not because that's all that Eastwood shot), but many directors tend to 'fall in love' with their work and can't help but insist to keep scenes in, even if they hurt their film in doing so. There's probably a really good 105-minute movie in Ross's 140-minute 'Free State of Jones' and those 105 minutes are worth the look. But this 140-minute film is not something you're likely going to want to own.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Free State of Jones' secedes onto home video in this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The 50GB Blu-ray and dual-layer DVD are housed inside a standard Elite keepcase along with an insert containing a code for either an UltraViolet or iTunes digital copy of the movie. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase's slick slides overtop. Both the Blu-ray and DVD are front-loaded with trailers for Hardcore Henry, Bad Moms, Hard Target 2, The Darkness, 'Snowden', Neighbors 2, and The Purge: Election Year. The Blu-ray main menu is the typical Universal design, with a still black and white image of Matthew McConaughey's character's face and menu selections down the left side of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
'Free State of Jones' was shot digitally using Arri Alexa XT equipment and is presented on Blu-ray in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The picture quality here is quite stunning, providing fine details, defined facial features, and some beautiful imagery of the countryside (the movie was shot both on-location in Jones County, Mississippi, as well as in Louisiana).
The cinematography pulls back on the color slightly to give the movie a more 'historical' look to it. Earth tones are primarily used, meaning there's a heavy push of browns, greens, and grays throughout. Black levels are excellent, and viewers should have no problems making things out in the movie's darker moments. Crush is also virtually non-existent.
The best news though is that I couldn't find any major glitches in the transfer. No banding, no aliasing, and only the slightest hint of noise in some of the movie's most dimly-lit sequences. This is a very visually pleasing experience.
The only audio option on this release is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, and from the opening moments of the movie, one realizes this is going to be a very solid presentation. LFE and low-end effects come into the mix almost immediately as we hear the stomping boots of Confederate soldiers heading into battle. Then we get a sense of how immersive the audio will be (at least at times) when the fight begins and we hear bullets whizzing by us in all directions.
The track is equally as impressive in the quieter moments, as when we can pick up on the distinct sounds of a campfire going or wind blowing through the trees on a dark Mississippi evening. Dynamic range throughout is excellent and there is noticeable separation between the various sounds and noises.
Dialogue is always crisp and balanced properly into the mix with the soundtrack and the other ambient noises present. In short, this is a great-sounding lossless track and one that certainly adds an additional level of enjoyment to watching the movie.
Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
'Free State of Jones' is a noble effort from Director Gary Ross and star Matthew McConaughey, but it wants to be this vast epic about Newton Knight's life and legacy, when the filmmakers might have served the audience better by providing a more condensed, focused story. There's a lot of good stuff in the movie, but it feels really padded and lags at times. Regardless, it's still work a look.