“Free State of Jones” is a deeply strange movie, but that’s fine — so is the history on which it’s based. Our most emblematic American stories often refuse to fit into neat boxes, and Hollywood usually crams them out of all recognizable shape. Not this time. Writer-director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “The Hunger Games”) is so taken with the saga of Newton Knight, a Confederate Yankee in the Civil War’s court, that he tries to tell the whole daft, contrarian story. The result is rather a mess, but it’s an honorable one, and very much worth wrestling with.
Knight, a poor Mississippi farmer, led an 1860s revolution of the underclass that was anti-aristocracy, anti-slavery, and pro-Union — in essence, they rebelled against the Rebels. He was a swamp fighter, ornery as hell, didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, loved his guns. Knight was married and had children with two women, one white and one black, and he lived with both openly and simultaneously. (That, more than his insurrection, is why he’s still reviled in the South.)
Who else but Matthew McConaughey could play this role?
The actor brings his soft, intense drawl and that clinically insane gleam in his eye to the playing of “Newt” Knight, who begins the film as a nurse during one of the Civil War’s bloodier battles — the carnage in the early scenes is unforgiving — and quickly says the hell with it and goes home. “It ain’t my fight,” he claims. “I don’t own slaves.”
Home is Jones County in the southeast corner of the state, where young boys are being conscripted into the army and Confederate tax agents are stripping poor families of their grain, livestock, and goods. “Free State of Jones” is a Robin Hood tale in its early going, but one that crosses your wires no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.
Scenes of the hero arming men, women, and children with guns and anti-government rhetoric eerily prefigure today’s paranoid militia mindset. But then Knight will pull down the Stars and Bars and hoist the Union flag, or insist to all the crackers following him that they’re fighting for the full and total freedom of blacks as well as whites. The movie refuses to categorize itself. This is what’s interesting and mostly good about it.
Eventually the Free Men of Jones County came out of the swamps and successfully held a town for the duration of the war, and Ross paints their struggle without too much glossing over. A scene in which Knight strangles a Confederate officer (Thomas Francis Murphy) with his belt is startlingly brutal. At times the movie feels hewed out of the forest itself.
A dowdied-down Keri Russell plays Knight’s first wife, Serena, who abandons him during the war and returns later; Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Beyond the Lights”), who couldn’t be dowdied down if they tried, plays Rachel, the plantation slave and Creole healer who gradually becomes his life partner. Mahershala Ali is a solid moral force as Moses, a runaway slave and Knight’s collaborator in rebellion and Reconstruction politics. You can feel “Free State of Jones” trying to back away from the standard white-hero-saving-the-black-folks Hollywood revisionism, but it seems baked into the story. McConaughey even seems vaguely shamed by it, or maybe that’s just his interpretation of the character.
What “Free State of Jones” really dramatizes is a class war in the Old South, one in which people derided then and now as “white trash” surged up against the landowners and envisioned a world where a man owned what he planted no matter his station or color. That idealism was steamrollered during Reconstruction, through lynchings and the rise of the Klan, and Ross and his co-writer Leonard Hartman don’t pretty up this part of the picture.
They want to get it all in, and too much more besides. Does “Free State of Jones” really need its opening battle scenes or the flash-forward to the 1950s, where a descendent of Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is on trial for miscegenation? Does the movie have to roll inexorably on for 139 minutes?
No, but it’s such an eccentric, anomalous, counterintuitive tale — one that fights the notion of the Civil War south as a social and cultural monolith — that too much shaping would probably neuter it. With Nate Parker’s upcoming “Birth of a Nation,” “Free State of Jones” might even be part of a new post-“12 Years a Slave” wave of films that look the myths and ongoing untruths of this country’s history dead in the eye. To which we should all say: glory, glory hallelujah.
FREE STATE OF JONES
Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Ross and Leonard Hartman. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell. At Boston Common, Fenway, West Newton, suburbs. 139 minutes. R (brutal battle scenes, disturbing graphic images).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.