Review: Free State of Jones, C
Rated R, 139 minutes
The new Civil War drama "Free State of Jones" is like sitting during a sermon that is going too long: the preacher has made his point, he needs to wrap it up so people can get on home. The preacher here is Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, and he knows his audience well, playing another real-life rebel who fought against the norm. "Jones" isn't without its merits: it's an honorable story but too redundant, particularly in a sluggish last act. After surviving the 1862 Battle of Corinth during the Civil War, Newton Knight (McConaughey), a poor farmer from Mississippi, leads a group of small farmers and local slaves in an armed rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County. Knight subsequently marries a former enslaved woman, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and establishing a mixed-race community. Directed and written by Gary Ross of "Seabiscuit" and the first "The Hunger Games," "Free State of Jones" is a well-acted but preachy drama extolling the merits of race and harmony through the real story of Knight, a rebel farmer who with the help of others, was an early proponent of integration and civil rights. McConaughey is an engaging, inspired Jones, and the initial chapters capture some of the horrors and atrocities of the war, with a powerful opening battle scene skillfully handled by Ross (and very briefly reuniting McConaughey with his "Mud" co-star Jacob Lofland aka Neckbone), along with building a peaceful, integrated community in the back swamps of Southern Mississippi. When the film comes out of the swamps, "Jones" tends to veer in several unnecessary directions: an evil Confederate Colonel (Brendan Gleeson), a former slave and community member (Mahershala Ali) and a flash forward to a trial featuring Newton's great-grandson, which has little value to the story at hand. This, along with Ross's penchant for sermonizing, loses some of the effect of Newton's story, and we never really get a sense of who Newton really was and some of his motives - even though history paints his legacy as clearly pro-Union. "Free State of Jones" goes on about 20 minutes too long, and while it has some powerful moments early in the film, you'll be looking at your watch more than once, waiting for this sermon to end.