Sunday, June 26, 2016


Rated: R

STARS: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw,
Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali
GENRE: Action-adventure, Drama, Biopic

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) is the first film I remember seeing where the bloody special effects were so real, I thought...well, we've entered a new era. Then Tarantino came along, and now it seems it's just standard practice to go for the most grisly, visceral realism in any action flick worthy of the designation.

But there's a tipping point, I think, where you ask yourself: Was this really necessary? Could the story have been told just as effectively if all the gore and the gross-out had been toned down a bit? My answer to the question, as regards the Civil War drama, Free State of Jones, is that yes, I think it could have been told effectively minus some of the close-ups of heads being blown off,  a dog roasting on a spit, a black man hanged with blood dripping down from his crotch...need I go on?

That aside, Free State of Jones scores major points for the acting--Matthew McConaughey is at his smoldering best here in the lead role as Newt Knight, a deserter from the Confederate army who was plum fed up with "fighting for cotton"--the poor man fighting a rich man's war, which casts a not so subtle and obviously intended reflection upon all the conflicts Uncle Sam has been embroiled in since Vietnam to the present day. (Nobody--with the exception of Antonio Banderas--does the slow smolder the way McConaughey can.) 

Major points also for the authenticity of the milieu. I totally bought into the sense of time and place, thanks to the appearance and demeanor of a fine supporting cast, and the, I felt like THIS is the way it surely was! (Maybe it also had something to do with the soldiers having really dirty hair.)

Knight begins with a ragtag group of farmers and escaped slaves, and grows it into a formidable force that occupies Jones County, Mississippi--rebelling against the punitive actions of the men in grey (rebels rebelling against rebels) who dealt harshly with any dissension among their ranks, and callously confiscated livestock and crops from the local farmers, making it difficult for them to survive the winter.

Free State of Jones is really two movies, with very different tones. The first is set during the fighting of the war--lots of action and dramatic tension--the second takes place during the aftermath and is a more cerebral and thought provoking tale that carries well into the reconstruction period. The second section has an anticlimactic feel to it, but director Gary Ross wanted to tell the WHOLE story of Newt Knight, and in doing so he has you glancing at your watch once you get past the two hour mark, wondering whether you can hang in there and delay that trip to the restroom until the closing credits roll by.

A dedicated critic will always take the risk of  such possible embarrassment for the sake of his art.

Grade: B -


Free State of Jones is a definite epic that covers years and years of southern strife, racism, brutality and that elusive quest for 'freedom.' I was riveted by the film's authenticity and who wouldn't root for Matthew McConaughey as rebel-with-a-cause. But I was also seriously put off by the flash-forwards (did I just coin a new cinematic term?). That's the problem with telling two stories in the same movie, i.e. one story usually overrides the other one. For me, that was definitely the case with the 85-years-later courtroom scenes.

That being said, I felt Free State of Jones was right up there with RootsThe Color Purple and 12 Years A Slave. Let's hope its summer release doesn't prevent it from garnering some Oscar nods.

Because the opening logo was unfamiliar to me, with its Chinese or Japanese lettering (I'm no expert), and the end producers' credits featured a lot of gentlemen named Wang, I decided to look up who produced this puppy. Take a guess how many producers, co-producers, executive producers and assistant producers were listed: 27! That must be some sort of record. I'm pretty sure their investments will pay off although there weren't many people in the audience the day I saw it.

The cast was stellar. But I want to single out one actress with a name that by all accounts should have hampered her acting career by a country mile. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, the love interest and later wife of our hero Newt Knight. Some of her lines in this film—and the way she delivers them—are absolutely unforgettable. And though today's Black Americans have it a whole lot easier than they did back then, they're still fighting an uphill battle. That, to me, is the underlying message I walked out of the theater thinking about.

Grade: B