Saturday, 22 October 2016

Review: Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones
Cert: 15 / 140 mins / Dir. Gary Ross / Trailer

Because we all love a two-and-a-half hour historical epic where the guy sitting in the back corner of the auditorium wants to get up and go to the loo four times meaning the entire row has to stand to let him out. No, that wasn't me. I was just one of the punters distracted from valuable dialogue because the chap chose the 'quiet' scenes to make his visits…

Set during the American Civil War, Free State Of Jones follows battlefield-medic turned conscientious objector, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), as he struggles to build a safe place for those who want nothing to do with the conflict or the slavery which typifies it. Naturally, he's not only fighting against a legalised social injustice, but one which has become the moral-standard. Peppered over this are dramatised scenes from a 1950s Mississippi court-house, where Knight's great-great grandson was determined to be one-eighth black and therefore unable to marry his sweetheart, a caucasian.

These trial-scenes unravel revelations of Knight's past which were undiscovered (or had been long forgotten) until the case was brought, and serve to tie the broad historical narrative together. At least, they're supposed to. Unfortunately, since the film begins in 1862 rather than 1950 like it should have, the latter segment of the story is treated like an afterthought which was added in during post-production and after the budget had been spent so they couldn't shoot enough to really make it worthwhile. It's particularly jarring since the first appearance of the trial occurs about twenty minutes into the movie without adequate introduction nor explanation.

Back in the main (and perfectly self-contained) body of the film though, we get a strong cast giving delicate performances in a story which rambles a little, but generally in the right direction. Mumblin' Matthew McConaughey is reliably solid, but Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali don't get anywhere near enough screentime, given how important their characters are and how well they're portrayed. As the story moves on to Newton's time living in the Mississippi swampland, as the new group grows in size and falters in certainty, the second act feels a little baggy and almost without firm direction, much like the protagonists. While things are always moving forward, they do so at a slow pace for a film of this type. The pacing also suffers with the overall duration, and the order of the real-events it's based on (ie. you wouldn't normally structure a screenplay this haphazardly).

But if you're here for the war, you won't be too disappointed either. The first casualty of the film is a full-on headshot*1, followed within 60 seconds by a lingering glimpse of three actual pigs grazing on the intestines of a battlefield corpse. It's not that the depiction of war here is gleefully brutal in any way, but it's dirty, slow and devoid of any glamour. The ongoing escalation of tit-for-tat between Knight's collective and the Confederate forces against them reminded me of Twin Town; that feeling where you think 'oh, this can't end well.' Although at its heart, this isn't a story about physical battle but an ideological war, and in that respect it may be more relevant than ever.

The film's probably not as morally challenging as it should be, given that it follows 12 Years A Slave and Lincoln, yet it also stands on the shoulders of those a little, comfortable that the audience needs little explanation of the surrounding events. Free State of Jones is a reminder that liberal voices existed in the bleakest of times, and that history is made by not just accepting injustice.

Although during his climactic and rights-setting speech, while Newton boldly states "every man, this" and "every man, that", I'm pretty sure I can't have been the only one sitting there thinking '…you know there are women there too, right? I can see them. One's stood right next to you. Oh hang on, is gender equality the setup for the sequel..?'

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The aforementioned films, to which it unfortunately bears more than a passing resemblance.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
For best effect, although it's not essential.

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Not really, but it achieves enough to make it worthwhile.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Not really, but everyone here has very strong previous.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Free State of Jones shares an unwieldy number of cast and crew members with 12 Years A Slave, a film that starred Lupita 'Maz Kanata' Nyong'o.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 And to this day I'm still disappointed that the bayonet blades on rifles don't go shooting out when the trigger is pulled. Someone really missed a trick, there. Sure, they'd be slow inaccurate and wasteful, but think of the satisfaction when you score a hit with one…

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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