As a history major, nothing excites me more than a AAA historical movie. Typically they end up being solid movies that shed light on a case or point in history that many people do not know about. So when I saw the first trailers for Free State of Jones (henceforth referred to as FSOJ), I naturally got very excited since nothing says a good film than a Civil War movie starring Matthew McConaughey. But, does FSOJ live up to (my) hype or does it fall flat like other McConaughey films?
Story: The story behind the story of FSOJ is a unique one. Many Hollywood depictions of the Civil War either focus on the North or (nowadays) the story of slaves and their terrible living conditions (i.e. 12 Days a Slave). However, FSOJ instead tells the story of poor (white) farmers in Mississippi struggling with the conditions of war and their armed rebellion against the confederacy. The two things I particularly enjoyed about the story was one, the focus on poor and low class farmers during both the war and Reconstruction and two, the struggles of free blacks trying to fight for their right to vote during Reconstruction. The movie does a good job of telling the story of Jones County but stumbles in a few places. The dramatization of the story seems forced in several scenes and the way they handle major events during the war (Lincoln’s assassination for instance) is only told through a photo and caption. Surely they could have found a more creative way of explaining these major events in the war. The biggest fumble of the movie, however, is seen in several flashforwards that show the struggles of Newton’s grandson struggling with the Mississippi race laws 80 years after the war. While the addition of this micro-story make sense after-the-fact, it is very out of place during the movie and hurts the audience’s sense of immersion. (yikes that was a lot of words)
Acting: Matthew McConaughey stars in classic McConaughey-fashion and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. There are several moments where McConaughey’s acting helps the audience connect with his character, yet most of the time it’s overdone and breaks the audience engagement. The saving grace of the film is Mahershala Ali (aka Remy Danton from House of Cards) and his portrayal of the freed slave Moses Washington. Ali does a fantastic job of showing the man’s development from runaway slave to freedman to activist trying to sign up blacks to vote.
Presentation: The movie does not look special. It is pretty par for the course in terms of historical movies. There are some good shots of the swamps of Mississippi however they are few and far in between. In addition, the soundtrack is lackluster and almost sounds like it was copied from other similar movies.
Effect: The movie does an ok job of making you feel sympathetic to the citizens of Jones County however the flashforward scenes slow the pace and make the heavier scenes of the movie less impactful.
Other: The worst thing about this movie is that it’s boring. Like I mentioned above, there are some good and heavy scenes however there are not many. The pace is slow and even the action scenes are just dull. This is a movie best scene on a plane or later on TV.
Overall, FSOJ is a passable movie and that made me sad. This movie had such potential but between overacting and a lazy script, FSOJ will be forgotten quickly.