Sunday, 25 December 2016

Movie Review: Free State Of Jones (2016)



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This is going to be a very, very short review. While I could just use the Christmas season as my excuse for not wanting to focus too much on such bleak notions as slavery, and admittedly the year has been depressing enough without needing to actively look for reasons to make it worse, it really just boils down to me not having as much to say about this film as I would have liked. My 12 Years A Slave review should show that I’m not the most articulate person when it comes to this subject, and what little reserves I have were spent writing about 13th earlier this month. As such, I’m just going to get right into this in a rather informal fashion. This is Free State Of Jones.


The performances here are really good. Matthew McConaughey brings his usual Southern charm to the proceedings, not to mention selling the hell out of his more traumatic moments, and he genuinely comes across like someone who could lead a rebellion of this magnitude. Mahershala Ali, an actor who I will never get sick of seeing in bigger-budgeted fare because he’s deserved a career like this for far too long, brings a lot of quiet dignity and moral patience to his role of Moses Washington. Not only that, when the character does get flashes of anger, he manages to make it coalesce with his other actions to make it feel consistent to who his character is. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, aside from having some really nice moments opposite McConaughey, makes for a rather solid female lead for the film and ends up embodying a lot of the film’s approaches to what exactly is a minority.

The film’s overall mentality when it comes to who was marginalized during the Civil War, while leaving itself open to erratic ravings of #AllLivesMatter by people almost destined to miss the point, is honestly a lot more nuanced than even the better films about racial prejudice have been able to reach. The residents of Jones County are relatively diverse, from soldiers who deserted the Confederate Army to former slaves to farmers and their wives, but they are all there for the same reason: The Confederacy wants to make an example of them. With this backing to it, the battle scenes between Newton and his army against the Confederates can get extremely cathartic, knowing just how deeply their prejudices can run. Desertion is met with a bounty, freedman are met with new chains and surrender is met with rope; knowing that there are people to this day who still defend the Confederacy, it’s honestly quite invigorating to see the rebellion actually succeed as much as it did.

And then the third act kicks in, after Jones County declares itself to be a free state. Now, thematically, the story continuing from there does make sense: It shows that even though the battle was won, the war for equality and recognition goes on; hell, it’s still going on today. However, this is where the film falls into a trap that most biographical films do: Too much ambition. Specifically, too much ambition when it comes to how much of the story gets shown. What makes films like Selma work as well as they do is that, rather than trying to encapsulate everything into a single work, it focused on a crucial element of the story and put everything into showing that properly. This, on the other hand, feels like it’s putting the story of Newton Knight into the strainer in order to get just that little bit of extra pathos out of it. As a result, while the first hour-and-a-half works well enough, it’s the third act that ends up making it lesser than it could have been. Then again, this was written and directed by Gary Ross; as Pleasantville and the first Hunger Games film have shown, he’s not exactly the most deft when it comes to depicting civil unrest.

All in all, it’s a decent film. Strong performances met with a good understanding of the mindset of the era to create some good righteousness when it counts. However, out of the simple mistake of sticking around for longer than it had to, it isn’t as good as it could have been. Much like Batman: The Killing Joke, this film could be improved just by snipping off one of the ends of the product… but doing so doesn’t change how the completed product turns out. It’s better than The Magnificent Seven, as this doesn’t carry nearly as much of a feeling of disappointment and wasted potential as that film. However, even with its far smarter script and stronger performances, it doesn’t register as good a note with me as Ratchet & Clank.

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