THE MOVIE GUY: ‘Jones’ tells dry story of a fascinating man

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, June 23, 2016

If not for the new movie “Free State of Jones,” I might never have heard of Newton Knight, the Mississippi man who led a rebellion against the South during the Civil War. It’s a fascinating story, which is why it’s such a shame that this new movie doesn’t live up to Knight’s apparent legacy.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Knight, who starts the film out as a field medic fighting in the Confederate Army. Horrified by the war and troubled by the notion that he is fighting to protect the rights of rich men, he decides to desert his post. He finds things at home to be just as dire because soldiers have been commandeering the local harvest to support the war effort.

Knight flees to the swamp to avoid the hangman, which is where he encounters a group of escaped slaves. Our hero joins forces with this group, as well as desperate farmers from the area to form their own militia and announce that they are seceding from the South.

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This would seem to be a story tailor-made to be a superb Hollywood film. It’s filled with heroic men acting nobly despite the desperation of their times. It has a lot of action, features an underdog to cheer for, and even manages to work a love story into the mix.

Unfortunately, “Free State of Jones” has such a wide scope that it also wanders into Southern Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and even a modern era court case. It’s too much, dragging the film’s running time way out past the two-hour mark. It also forces the filmmakers to rush through the interesting personal moments because they have so much ground to cover. The end result is a film that feels like an educational documentary rather than a\the full-blooded biography of a remarkable man.

For his part, McConaughey certainly looks the part, striving to bring out the humble nobility of the central character. He is certainly able to rouse audience fervor during the course of the film, despite a nagging suspicion that the screenwriters have nearly written the character as an actual saint. His actions seem calculated to appease modern sensibilities rather than shed light on the man himself.

The film never gets under Knight’s skin. We never really learn what made the man tick, or how his leadership truly affected the men he led. That’s a fatal flaw for any movie, but particularly problematic in a period drama. The film still looks great, and McConaughey and his cast mates do their best with their underwritten parts, but the unfocused screenplay dooms the film to failure. Even those familiar with Knight’s story may leave this movie wondering what the fuss was all about.

Movie reviews by Sean, “The Movie Guy,” are published bi-weekly in “The Port Arthur News” and seen weekly on KFDM and KBTV. Sean welcomes your comments via email