FREE STATE OF JONES (Gary Ross). 139 minutes. Opens Friday (June 24). See listing. Rating: NN
A well-meaning but ultimately disposable Civil War drama, Gary Ross’s Free State Of Jones tells the true story of Newton Knight, a farmer and former Confederate soldier who organized a small militia of fellow deserters and escaped slaves to take on the Confederacy in Mississippi.
Knight was basically an American Robin Hood, and director/co-writer Ross approaches his story as a synthesis of his last two features, the dewy-eyed historical drama Seabiscuit and the first Hunger Games movie.
Ross frames Matthew McConaughey’s forward-thinking Knight as an unlikely hero who’s as good with -inspirational speeches as he is with guerrilla tactics – and if his rebellion costs him the love of his wife (Keri Russell), well, it nudges him toward a new romance with a sympathetic slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
That’s just one of several predictable developments in this long, self-serious picture, which lingers exhaustingly on its authentic period details (most of the actors wear ugly dentures to remind us that we’re looking into the past!) but forgets to galvanize the story by fleshing out anyone but Newt.
Ross badly wants to be a daring storyteller, but his sensibilities are strictly middle-of-the-road. Villains are stock moustache-twirlers, for instance, and while there’s plenty of violence, the camera always looks away during the worst of it. After the devastating honesty of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, this just doesn’t cut it any more.