Monday, August 08, 2016

Free State of Jones (2016)

Free State of Jones was better than I expected—more historical veracity, and bearing a certain moral compass you can't help agreeing with. But I thought it suffered from the same kind of problem that dogs Schindler's List, attempting to make a very likable movie out of very unlikable events. Looking for and finding the seed of goodness in a field of unrelenting evil. And maybe get an Oscar out of it too. Et cetera. I count it as good that movies have started showing more realities of American slavery and 19th-century Southern politics. But there's little more here than that. It does go beyond race and into class and economic realities, discussing and showing how poor whites were treated nearly as badly as slaves because they were poor and others were rich. That's an interesting and useful angle into American history. The story itself—look out, "based on true events"—strains credulity. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a Confederate conscript who deserts when he has seen too much death in the Civil War. He must hide because as a deserter he will be hanged if caught. Thanks to divine inspiration, or something, he is suddenly endowed with great spiritual enlightenment, forging out of a literal swamp an integrated and diverse community which can defend itself against Confederate Army depredations such as stealing their crops, their livestock, and their young men. By a third of the way in I was mostly looking forward to the scenes of cathartic violence, when Knight (usually) served righteous come-uppance. That was my clue it's not such a great movie. The cathartic violence did not happen often enough, and it was rarely harsh enough, which told me I was being manipulated, even if from time to time I was happy about it for the moment. This movie also has the problem of most historical dramas in trying to stick to historical facts and still keep them interesting to modern sensibilities. I don't know anything about this strange community in the middle of Mississippi in the middle of the Civil War, but the dramatics of the picture felt pumped up for effect. So the premise is more or less interesting but mostly plays out in uninteresting ways. It's not quite honest enough about the material, and not quite badass enough about Knight and his crew and their vengeance. Notwithstanding, I'm glad someone made this movie.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, they lay on the messianic great-man angle to the point at which it is hard to swallow. I think the collective achievement, this mixed community in Mississippi pulling out of the war, lasting for however long, is what's most fascinating. That'd be complicated, sure, but it's largely a missing piece in the story.