Is the McConaissance well and truly over? Looks like it: Matthew McConaughey stars in this strident, half-successful Civil War drama, a movie that leans too hard on its star's Southern-fried smoothness (which is getting to be a bit of a joke now). 'Free State of Jones' certainly looks and sounds right, and probably smells right too – all these Mississippi battles and unwashed soldiers feel authentic. The problem, as with McConaughey's performance, is that you always do feel it. The film is in your face, like an over-eager student waving his hand in the front row because he knows the answer.
The irony here is that McConaughey's character – the controversial real-life rebel Newton Knight, a Unionist who broke from the Confederacy while still remaining racist – could have been exactly the kind of complex role the actor needs. For this overlong plot, Knight's rougher edges have been sanded down. There's lots of slave-freeing, speech-giving and interracial-romancing (with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in an underwritten part), but little of the kind of cryptic unknowingness McConaughey is capable of.
Writer-director Gary Ross ('Pleasantville', 'Seabiscuit') knows how to please crowds, so it's fascinating to witness his consistently wrongheaded impulse to add even more historical details: lengthy explanatory scenes, even a leap decades into the future for a courtroom drama involving Knight's persecuted offspring. He loses sight of the powerful drama at this story's heart.