Impeccably wrought yet emotionally hollow, Gary Ross's Civil War-era rebellion drama suffers from too much ambition.
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 joke, Oscars coronation aside). Free State of Jones certainly looks and sounds right, and probably smells right too—these gunky 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 a brown-nosing 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 opacity McConaughey is capable of.
Writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) knows how to please crowds, so there's fascination in his consistently wrongheaded impulse to add more historical details: lengthy scenes of exposition, even a leap decades into the future for a courtroom drama involving Knight's persecuted offspring. He's lost sight of the powerful drama at this story's heart, about the ennobling swirl of momentous events.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew