*** out of four
It's 1862 and the Civil War is raging. Poor Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a war deserter because he doesn't believe that he and others should fight and die so rich southern landowners can keep their cotton and slaves. So, along with a small band of runaway slaves and other local farmers, Knight builds an armed rebellion against the Confederacy.
This is based on a true story, but the movie doesn't play like a dull history lesson. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games) has made an exciting, brutally violent and powerfully emotional film.
The real Knight is a controversial figure to be sure, but McConaughey's 1000-watt charisma makes you believe in the character that he is portraying. There is great support by Mahershala Ali as slave Moses as well as the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a slave Knight falls in love with.
What keeps Free State of Jones from being a masterpiece is that the story, as presented here, is very choppy, especially when the film occasionally jumps to 1948 with Knight's great-grandson, Davis, on trial for miscegenation. There are many other issues too, like Knight's wife, played by Keri Russell, just appears without a real introduction, and the movie doesn't have a proper final scene. It just kind of trails off. All this abruptness feels like a longer movie that was trimmed down. Hopefully, we will see a longer, fuller cut of the film on Blu-ray.
And Free State of Jones was filmed all over Louisiana including Braithwaite, Bush, Clinton, Greensburg and Paradis.