Free State of Jones does a decent job approximating the feel of a prestige picture.
Free State of Jones feels almost like writer and director Gary Ross is running through a checklist of all the elements expected from a successful prestige picture. It deals with heavy subject matter, unfolding primarily during the Civil War and touching upon Reconstruction. It is paced indulgently, never rising to more the a sitting trot. It is anchored in performance by a critically-acclaimed Oscar-winning actor who dominates the film. Its cinematography is uncomplicated and stately. It is laboured with a framing device that offers the illusion of depth.
Free State of Jones plays as an imitation of a much bolder and provocative film. There are points at which the film brushes up against potentially brilliant ideas, only to back away. For a film about slavery, Free State of Jones finds itself unable to look beyond its white leading character. The framing and scene composition is clearly intended to seem dignified, but instead feels lifeless. The film’s perspective is limited, in both a literal and figurative sense. There are a lot of interesting ideas inside Free State of Jones, but none of them are allowed to grow.
There is a heavy earnestness to Free State of Jones, but it suffocates the story.
Free State of Jones is packed full of intriguing elements. The story centres on a deserter from the Confederate Army who opts to set up a community of outcasts quite removed from the war effort, welcoming both dispossessed whites and escaped slaves to his makeshift home. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, Newton Knight declares his own small nation in Mississippi. Along the way, Knight comes to befriend former slaves and prepares for the prospect of life after wartime in the South.
This is an interesting premise, and the biggest issue with Free State of Jones is that it chooses the most boring way to tell this story. The script focuses almost exclusively on Newton Knight, focusing on the other characters only as they come into his orbit. This is most obvious in the way that the film deals with the theme of slavery, viewing the phenomenon almost entirely from Knight’s perspective. Knight’s story as a deserter and leader are interesting, but they are only half the experience. Knight cannot speak entirely to the horrors of slavery or the racism following the Civil War.
In particular, the characters of former slaves Rachel Knight and Moses Washington feel underserved by the script, viewed primarily through the eyes of a former Confederate soldier and land-owner. Free State of Jones undoubtedly has the best of intentions, and Knight is portrayed as a stalwart ally of African Americans like Rachel and Moses, but there is a certain tonedeafness to the way that the film frames these sequences. This is most notable in the repeated sequences where Knight compares the experiences of land-owning white southerners to those of plantation slaves.
These issues grow to critical mass over the course of the film, particularly during the final third. The Reconstruction remains one of the most interesting periods in American life, but also one of the least explored. There are any number of reasons why popular culture has been more reluctant to delve into Reconstruction than the Civil War, from the country’s difficulty reconciling itself with the legacy of the Confederate States through to the simple fact that war stories are more visceral and emotive than political tales.
Nevertheless, Free State of Jones is at is most interesting (and its most dysfunctional) when it pushes past the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era. It is reassuring to see a film acknowledge that the end of the Civil War did not resolve all of the injustices visited upon the slaves, and Free State of Jones is at its most interesting in exploring the idea that the core battle of the Civil War outlived the conflict itself. However, there is a sense that Knight was very much a passenger on this journey, while Free State of Jones insists on positioning him as a leader.
To be fair, this is indicative of several other issues with the script. Most obviously, the entire Reconstruction sequence feels unnecessarily compressed. It takes up the majority of the film’s third act, which is just long enough to hint at interesting ideas, but not long enough to develop them. The result is that the film’s most powerful sequence feels like an epilogue to a much more conventional war story about a bunch of disaffected outcasts refusing to fight in another man’s war. There is a sense that a better balance might have been found.
This is the case across the runtime of Free State of Jones, a film packed with interesting concepts, but either unwilling or unable to disentangle them from more generic elements. There are extended sequences of Knight building an idyllic community in the wilderness, often feeling like variations on the same scene. In contrast, there are brief glimpses of more striking ideas; such as the guerilla war that Knight wages upon the Confederate forces, including an especially brutal confrontation at a church that employs the kind of tactics most would associate with terrorism.
Indeed, Free State of Jones seems so concerned about its material relevance that it keeps cutting from the 1860s to the 1940s, interspacing the Civil War and Reconstruction story with a court case that finds Newton Knight’s descendant charged under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws. It is a plot thread not developed enough to really land, but prominent enough to be distracting. It is a commendable idea, demonstrating the lingering impact of these racial divisions , but it also feels somewhat trite.
The audience does not need a forties love story to care about the events unfolding during the time of Newton Knight. More than that, and as tragic as the dissolution of a single marriage might be, there were much broader and deeper implications of systemic racism stemming from the end of the Civil War and the failure of the Reconstruction. Free State of Jones has its heart in the right place, but its focus is far too narrow. This is somewhat ironic, given the film’s extended runtime, but it feels like a stronger version of Free State of Jones could have covered more ground in less time.
Free State of Jones often feels confined by the expectations of the type of film that it is supposed to be. This also boils down to the way that Gary Ross chooses to shoot the movie. Free State of Jones is not a particularly dynamic piece of cinema, favouring steady shots and clean compositions. The camera very rarely moves. When it does pan or tilt, it does so slowly and methodically. The result is direction that feels decidedly old-fashioned and exceptionally conventional. There is a certain lifeless quality to the film.
That said, there are moments when this approach works very well. There are number of striking shots that lend themselves to this more traditional style. In particular, the sequences set during the Reconstruction era dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are suitably unnerving. The torches and hoods ride through the night, approaching a static camera with all the inevitability of history unfolding. During the burning of a church, the camera leans upwards for an extended shot of the red embers flying through the black sky. Sadly, these moments are too few and far between.
Free State of Jones largely squanders an interesting premise and a good cast. The script and direction try to force the story into a more conventional mould, ignoring that the story is so interesting precisely because it is does not fit there.