It isn’t until you see a real life picture of Newton Knight, the central subject of historical biopic Free State of Jones, that you realise just how perfect the casting of Matthew McConaughey as the Southern legend truly is. The pair may not look exactly the same, but they share the same piercing eyes that are filled with so much intensity that they can say a lot without saying a word. This is central to the Oscar-winning actor’s performance in Gary Ross’ otherwise tedious epic, a central performance in which McConaughey wears his characters’ pain and history in his facial wrinkles and one which is more efficient than it is ground-breaking.
Whilst I can’t see the actor winning any golden statues for his role as the Confederate army deserter who ended up leading a rebellion in Civil War America, he is still just about the only good thing about the film – Gugu Mbatha-Raw is also fantastic, but shamefully underused throughout. Away from the performances, Free State of Jones features some of the most painfully clunky writing to have ever graced this genre, lacking any real kind of gusto or creative vigour in the way this admittedly incredible true story is brought to the screen.
Covering a number of years in Knight’s life, the film feels overly long at nearly two and a half hours, to the point where it feels like a sharp scalpel should have been taken to the screenplay in a bid to tighten up the narrative. Case in point are the moments in which the story runs off in a tangent, focusing on one of Knight’s descendants 85-years after the war, as he argues his case to marry his long-time girlfriend in spite of his one-eighth black descent. It’s not so much that this particular point doesn’t serve a purpose, but more that it isn’t handled well enough to justify its existence.
Nobody can argue that Ross doesn’t put the history at the forefront of the film, but it’s as if he’s forgotten the necessity for some drama in the process. There are certain sequences which are naturally powerful as a result from dealing with such things as slavery – later moments in which the Ku Klux Klan and lynching come into play are of a particularly shocking and moving nature – but there’s nothing in the film that resonates or stays with you by the time you’ve left the cinema screen. It’s perfectly serviceable to a degree, but Free State of Jones is largely a disappointing biopic with subject matter that has been dealt with much more successfully previously.
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