It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Gary Ross’ “Free State of Jones” is based on one of the most fascinating true stories of the Civil War. It tells of a rebellion against the Confederacy led by an angry farmer named Newton Knight, whose ragtag army of poor whites and escaped slaves declared a portion of southeastern Mississippi, including Jones County, independent and loyal to the Union. As inherently astonishing and powerful as this little-known episode is, it has not been well-served by Ross’ lumpy, ill-conceived script, which ends up wasting Matthew McConaughey’s terrific lead performance and other strong acting contributions.
The film starts out with a searing reminder of the horrors of the only war fought on American soil. We’re on a battlefield with straight lines of Confederate soldiers as they march resolutely toward the enemy and encounter blistering fire that fells one soldier after another. An orderly who takes the wounded to a field hospital, Knight (McConaughey) gets an eyeful of the blood and agony that battle produces. Clearly, he’s already disgusted by the suffering he sees, as well as being angered by a new law that exempts men who own more than 20 slaves from military service. As one of his disaffected fellow soldiers says, it’s “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”
When a teenage kinsman shows up to fight and is soon killed, Knight deserts from his company to take the boy’s body home, thereby putting himself at risk for capture and execution. On home ground, he’s among people who’ve been victimized by the Confederacy’s “tax in kind” law, which allows the South’s armies to requisition goods, food and livestock from civilians, who are often left starving and destitute as a result. He also finds his wife Serena (Keri Russell) tending their son who is terribly ill. No doctor is available, but a female slave from a nearby plantation named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) applies herbal remedies that lift the boy’s fever.
Eventually, unable to hide at home, Knight escapes into the swamp, where he joins a small group of runaway slaves in an enclave that’s effectively impenetrable by outsiders. Before long, these fugitives are joined by others, both black and white. Though the film makes note of the racism that occasionally roils the makeshift community, the group’s desperate circumstances obviously dictate a modicum of solidarity.