In American cinema, there’s plenty of liberalism, but radicalism is a true rarity, and that makes Free State Of Jones an even more fascinating filmmaking feat. Co-written and directed with a fierce lack of compromise by Gary Ross (who makes his first film since starting the cinematic Hunger Games, from which he was bounced and replaced by Francis Lawrence), this terse, harrowing, and breathtakingly immediate drama tells the strange tale of Newton Knight, a Civil War-era deep thinker and man of action who – for a brief, incandescent moment – scratched out a mini-utopia in the middle of a battle zone. As with any biopic, debate rages about the film’s alacrity, and whether or not it deifies an unworthy man. Truth-telling aside, the Newton Knight of this film – played with a canny mix of philosophical calm and broiling anger by a brilliant Matthew McConaughey – is as fascinating and compelling a character as you’ll ever see.
As the film begins, Knight is working as a nurse for the embattled Confederate Army, wrist-deep in blood as he grapples in vain to keep his eviscerated colleagues alive. Knight has a self-awareness lacking in his fellow soldiers, and when he learns that the Confederate Army has been sacking the farms of its own people to feed its men on the frontlines, he leaves his post to come to their defence. Eventually on the run, Knight ends up in the swampland of Mississippi, where he takes shelter with a group of freed slaves, kick-starting a community which soon swells with other Confederate deserters and exploited farmers of the region. Armed and angry, Knight and his followers take the fight to the Confederacy, and establish the “Free State Of Jones” in the area in and around Jones County, Mississippi, at the height of the war.
Though gifted a Terrence Malick-style Magic Hour gleam by master cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme (The Proposition), Free State Of Jones is one long, anguished cry of rage from Gary Ross at the horrors of America: at its bigotry, its ignorance, and its easy propensity for war. We’ve heard that kind of scream before, but this time, it’s delivered in a far different timbre. Its hero, Newton Knight, is a true leftist revolutionary, the kind that raises the bile in most Americans. The community that he creates is not only racially harmonious (Knight happily takes up with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Rachel, an escaped slave), but also built on socialist ideals. Knight calls out the Southern rich (those who owned twenty slaves or more were exempt from serving in the military, while dirt-poor corn farmers were exploited at every turn), and frames The Civil War as one of class, rather than ideology or geography. It’s a brave cinematic stand from Gary Ross (and a kind unseen since John Sayles’ 1987 masterpiece, Matewan), and it’s no surprise that Free State Of Jones comes without studio backing and 27 credited producers, perhaps pointing to the difficulty of its financing process.
But political daring aside, Free State Of Jones rates highly as cinema. As created here, Knight is a brilliantly drawn figure: he’s deeply conflicted at every turn, reaching for peaceful ideals while always cocking his guns with disturbing urgency. There’s a slightly maniacal quiver somewhere inside McConaughey’s performance, which makes Knight anything but saintly. McConaughey is superb, and he’s teamed with a fine ensemble – Gugu Mbatha-Raw is earthily angelic as Rachel, while Keri Russell brings a knowing sadness to the role of Knight’s first wife, Serena. Mahershala Ali, however, steals all of his scenes as runaway slave, Moses, a cornerstone of Knight’s swampland paradise. There are also battle scenes aplenty, along with moments of high tension and action, while a contemporary (and mildly jarring) aside reminds us that America’s bigotry has continued long, long after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Impassioned and brave, Free State Of Jones is a towering piece of leftist American cinema, commenting on the horrors of the nation’s past, which continue to echo into its equally fractured present.