Matthew McConaughey (center) and Mahershala Ali (center left) star in THE FREE STATE OF JONES

Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey & Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Well alright alright alright. Matthew McConaughey is back once more in a dramatic lead role that, whilst incomparable to his other serious adventures, proves a noteworthy addition. Though long and over-bloated, but it nevertheless shares an unbelievable yet true story from America’s Civil War.

We follow the life of Newton Knight, who serves as a battlefield medic for the Confederate Army in 1862. After the loss of his young nephew, Knight begins to question his involvement in the war and decides to desert the army to create his own renegade rebellion to take on the Confederacy in Jones County. Runaway slaves join Knight’s campaign, and there’s tensions on all sides. We see Newton begin to define himself by a new set of guiding principles, and struggle desperately to share them with others unwilling to adapt.

This is where the film begins to lose touch. Even though each subplot is of importance, there is almost too much to cover. Too many climaxes and resolutions are established, only for more to be introduced. For example, just as the war concludes and we’re feeling exhausted, the film progresses onto another major conflict; that of black voting rights. We also are led into the (extremely complex) issues of post-war settlement and continued segregation. It’s in these decisions that I feel director and writer Gary Ross has overstepped his ambitions – creating a film that is too long and overcrowded from one scene to the next.

The choice to intersperse the saga of Newton’s great-great-great grandson adds even further confusion to the plot. Whilst there were valid reasons behind the choice (to draw a parallel between his spirit and actions and those of his great ancestor) this particular story felt difficult to relate to and out of place in the context of the main plot.  You can’t be expected to feel much for someone who shows up for less than 15 minutes of the film.

There are some strong performances throughout – in particular that of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose beautiful acting brings out subtle emotions. McConaughey is still in fine form, but didn’t blow me away here like he did in Dallas Buyers Club. I wouldn’t recommend seeing this – you would have a more enjoyable experience reading and researching into the life of Newton Knight yourself. Today, the story of Jones County and Newton Knight’s forces seems inconceivable. You might be amazed.

Words by Josip Knezevic


By Pelican Magazine

Pelican is one of the oldest student publications in Australia and the only independent paper at UWA. If you enjoy writing, then Pelican is the place for you! We print six themed issues a year, and run a stream of online content.

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