HTS Moderator , Reviewer
Title: Free State of Jones
HTS Overall Score:78
I had no idea that “Free State of Jones” was actually based off of a bizarrely true story until the movie trailers started coming out full time. The title “Free State of Jones” caught my eye and I had to check it out. Low and behold it was actually a true tale of a group of Mississippi rebels who decided that living and dying for the rich, white slave owners was something they didn’t want to support anymore. At that point I was EAGER to get my hands on the film and check it out, as I am not only a fan of Matthew McConaughey, but also of the intriguing premise behind the tale. I was met with some rather mixed results upon watching, though. The film struggles to get off the ground for the first 50 minutes, but then kicks it into high gear with a rousing story, only to stumble and fall in the last 30 minutes. A rather odd mix, it seems to be a script writing problem, as the acting from several of the leads is nothing short of spectacular and the source material that it was pulled from was an engaging read.
The movie starts with a bleak reminder that war is not as glorious as some stories would have us believe. The battle between the states was in full gear at this point and we get to see the blood and guts of the wounded as field nurse Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) drags their bodies to the medic tents. Already embittered about the violence and death that he was seeing, it gets even more frustrating when the new slave law comes into the camp. Basically anyone who owns 20 slaves gets an exemption from combat. Those who have 40 get an exemption plus their first two children are as well and up and up the more slaves you owned. This meant that the rich were all exemption while the poor people were forced to fight a war so that they could keep their slaves. The tipping point for Knight was when a teenager kinsman of his is drafted into the war only to end up dead. Deserting the service to take the child home, Knight is confronted with the ravages of the war back home. Confederate leaders were stripping the farms and food away from the people and using it for the war effort, leaving the poor folks back home walling in destitution.
A deserter at this point, Knight is targeted by the troops and just barely escapes into the swamps where he meets up with some black escapees as well as a few white people who are sick and tired of being taken advantage of. Against all odds, Knight and his guerrilla warriors say enough is enough. Taking back a big chunk of Mississippi, including Jones County, they fend off the Confederates (who are at this point up to their ears in fighting the Union troops) and declare themselves a free state, called the State of Jones.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=80194[/img]I was really eager to watch “The Free State of Jones” and came in with a full bucket of popcorn and a few liters of coke to fuel this watch. However I was strangely confused after the first 25 minutes. The opening scene was simply fantastic, but past that it sort of lost momentum. It takes over 50 minutes to actually get to the good stuff and then it kicks into action once Jones and his men start fighting back against the confederate thieving parties (which is what they were). At this point it’s a rousing war story with a lot of action and some incredible acting by the leads (McConaughey is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. Something I never thought possible in his younger years of making “pretty boy” films). But by the end of the conflict the movie starts really losing steam once more. The last half an hour seems to not have any point but show that reconstruction was crummier than the actual war itself. It’s a mixture of scenes that seem to make no impact, or tell any further story besides another few years in the life of Newton Knight.
There was one subplot that really was excellent in theory (and is taken from the book), but sadly really poor in execution. We have a court room drama about one of Knight’s descendants that he had from his black wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). In Mississippi for a time there was a law that you couldn’t marry someone if they were 1/8th black or more, and as this descendent LOOKED white, but shared the ancestry of his great grandmother he was being told that his marriage would be annulled. The story itself is a great story, and fit well in the book, but the film would just randomly insert pieces of the court room drama throughout the running and the result is a very jarring shift of scenes that seemed to find no anchoring in the actually historical drama that we were watching.
Now the good part is that the acting is superb. McConaughey is fabulous as the very tired and very fed up Netwon Knight. He has that gritty feel to him that makes the character believable. Even though Kerri Russel is his wife at the beginning of the film, she only has 10 minutes of actual screen time (at most), but her character fits right in. Honestly, there wasn’t a man woman or child in the film that DIDN’T play their role to excellence. Sadly the stumbling and slowness of the film seem to be relegated to the direction and writing.
Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=80202[/img]Shot on Arri Alexa cameras, “The Free State of Jones” is a great looking transfer and one that has VERY few flaws. In the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film looks expansive and wide enough to satisfy this scope lover, but intimate as well. Colors are bright and colorful at times, but also grim and earthy as the poorer folks tend to not have the fancy things of the more “successful” people in that day. Dirt and grime was about as common to them as deodorant and clothing for us. The blacks are deep and inky, though sometimes they look a bit dirty and you can see some digital noise during those moments. The scene where Knight is head to head with the boy he mad corporal when trying to dissuade him from giving up his arms to the Confederates is one of the biggest offenders in that department. Past that, fine detail is exquisite, as you can see every bit of grease, grime and sweat on their faces. Clothing is intimately detailed, and blood, guts and other aspects of war show up with disturbing clarity.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/gallery/file.php?n=80210[/img]The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is just as engaging and well done as the video is. There is a lot of dialog in the film, and all of it is done perfectly. Vocals are crisp and clear, while the dynamic range is wide and filled with power. Moments of quiet are punctuated by battle sequences that light up all 6 speakers with incredible immersion and sensitivity. Gunshots are deep and guttural, but don’t sound like howitzer cannons (while the cannons actually DO have that insane quality to them), and the crashing and burning of the battlefield is dynamically represented with a lot of surround usage. LFE is powerful, and the dynamic range is wide as I said, but there are plenty of nuanced bits in the film where you can hear the crackling of fire coming from the rear left, and the sound of knives digging into hog flesh in the upper portion of the soundstage. Overall this is a great sounding track that really puts the listener in to the heart of the film.
• The History of Jones County
“The Free State of Jones” is actually a rather good film that suffers mainly from a bloated script and an ending that suffers from not enough trimming. The good parts of the film are REALLY good, and hover just under being epic, but the slow parts do drag on far too long. A condition which keeps the movie from really being great, in my opinion. The audio and the video for the brand new release are fantastic, but I was rather disappointed with only one 18 minute extras on the disc. There is a TON of information on the real story and I was hoping for an in depth commentary or featurette set that would go into that with detail. While it’s not great, it’s still a solid watch and definitely worth a good rental at the least.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Leonard Hartman
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 AVC
Audio: English: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Runtime: 140 Minutes
Blu-ray Release Date: Sept 20th, 2016
Buy Free State of Jones Blu-ray on Amazon
Recommendation: Solid Rental
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