In theaters this Friday from writer/director Gary Ross and STX Entertainment is defiance during the Civil War that leads to the “Free State of Jones.”
Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a soldier during the Civil War who has seen more than his fair share of death. When a young family member seeks him out for help, Knights mission is to get the boy out alive. War doesn’t respect age and he takes the young boy home to his family in Mississippi only to discover there is another war at home.
Farmers and women left to tend the home front are being stripped of what they own by the Confederacy. Those that don’t cooperate feel the wrath of soldiers. When Knight tries to help a family keep their food stuffs, he knows those in charge will be coming for him. Wife Serena (Keri Russell) is upset that husband Knight has put the family in even more danger.
Turning to cantina owner Aunt Sally (Jill Clements), she has her man Wilson (Donald Watkins) take Knight to the last place the soldiers would go to find him – deep in the swamps. There he is met by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who leads to a group of slaves that have run away.
Knight befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali) and eventually more men join them in the swamp including fellow soldier Jasper Collins (Christopher Berry) and Will Sumrall (Sean Bridgers). Building an army of their own, Knight becomes the leader they all look to when it’s time to take the fight to the soldiers.
There is more at stake for the future of each of these citizens who want to be free to chose their own destiny.
McConaughey as Knight carries the film’s weight as his character is in almost every single frame. He also seems comfortable in his own skin playing Knight covering almost every emotion possible, never afraid to shed a tear in both anger and sadness. This is an extremely solid performance and one that should not be ignored.
Mbatha-Raw as Rachel is portraying a character on the other end of the spectrum. In 2013 she had the lead role in the film “Belle” about a young mixed raced girl who is raised by an Uncle who is a judge in 18th Century England when slavery is an issue brought forward. Here she follows Knight and supports his fight.
Ali as Moses befriends Knight and believes in what he is doing. After their fight, Moses begins another war leading his people to vote. Berry as Jasper leaves his regiment to join Knight along with Bridgers as Sumrall who begins the fight but knows when its time to walk away.
Russell doesn’t have a large role as Knight’s wife but her presence is necessary in the storyline. Watkins as Wilson is a man who moves in silence because that is the best way to stay one step ahead of the enemy. Tangradi as Lt. Barbour spends more time being humiliated by Knight and the fighters and even years down the road after he’s allowed to remain alive, Knight has the final say.
Other cast include Jacob Lofland as Daniel, Thomas Murphy as Elias Hood, Brian Franklin as Davis Knight, Kerry Cahill as Mary, Joe Chrest as James Eakins, and Jessica Collins as Annie.
TUBS OF POPCORN: I give “Free State of Jones” three and a half tubs of popcorn out of five. The audience seemed very interested in the story within a story of the Knight family and their part in American history. The film does have its dark and brutal moments which one would expect in a film about war.
The film follows history from the fields of the Civil War and what was going on politically in a time line. Knight and followers want to stop fighting for the rich and take out of the ground what they put into it. Raising their families without fear proves to be the biggest challenge for them all.
The story does move around a bit and there is an under story that I will leave for everyone to see for themselves. There are characters in the film that may not have large roles but yet their presence is meaningful. It is an epic story to be sure but one I believe needed a little more thought as the second half of the film begins to meander a little.
Coming in at over two hours, I believe it could use a more focus and trimming to tell the same story.
In the end — it is history based on a true story.