Have we met the end of the McConnaissance? For the past half-decade, it seemed Matthew McConaughey (“Mud”) could do no wrong. Turning his back on the frivolous romantic comedies that made him a household name, McConaughey chose a number of projects that demanded attention and, more often than not, respect. After playing the silly cop with a vengeance in “Bernie” to the mysterious fugitive-on-the-lam in “Mud,” he won an Oscar for his remarkable performance in “Dallas Buyers Club” and cashed in at the box office in the following year’s “Interstellar.” But, since then, McConaughey has remained mum. He starred in last year’s critically panned and subsequently buried “The Sea of Trees” and, now, he’s the lead in the imperfect “Free State of Jones.”
“Jones” purports to tell the true tale of Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier, who, after his nephew is killed in front of him in the 1862 Battle of Corinth, becomes an enlightened insurgent against the rebels. He gathers a band of Confederate defectors and escaped slaves, including Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”) and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Beyond the Lights”), who later marries Knight, and wages guerrilla war against the confederacy in Mississippi. Serena Knight (Keri Russell, “The Americans”), Newton’s first partner, is included in the film but not given a meaningful arc. And as if covering the Civil War wasn’t sufficient, the film goes on to depict the early Reconstruction years and even uses a rather pointless and ineffective 1950s anti-miscegenation trial as a framing device. (Sidenote: this film is a true story insofar as there was an anti-Confederate insurrection in Jones County, led by Newton Knight. The rest of the film’s story, it seems, is completely fabricated).
When will writers learn that catch-all movies rarely work? The episodic model of filmmaking has found much success in recent years: “Frost/Nixon,” “Lincoln” and “Selma” brought the lives of American legends to the screen with just a sliver of their legacy. “Free State of Jones” packs its two-and-a-half hours with a carefully-cultivated, but dully-depicted mid-19th Century America. The scenes are fun to watch for the film’s production designer’s tenacity, but the entire film is layered in an artifice translated simply through the whole thing’s sheer heft, struggling to wade through the Mississippian bogs.
“Jones” was probably a good choice on paper for a distinctly southern actor. A historical and almost epic war drama with a heavy racial equality theme, directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”), who has never really had a flop, McConaughey could have seen “Jones” as his next ticket to the Oscars. And, to be fair, the film gets a lot of the technical work right. Both the chaotic battle scenes and the quiet moments in the dense Mississippi swamps are expertly filmed. Unfortunately, it looks like McConaughey will have to work a bit harder in the future.
In fact, it’s just that—McConaughey’s effort, or lack thereof—that drags the film. It seems like McConaughey scored the role simply because he evidently resembles the character he’s portraying (I personally don’t see it) and he has such an entrenched southern drawl he wouldn’t need a vocal coach. That’s McConaughey as a commodity, not a gifted and treasured actor deserving of a career renaissance with a catchy name. Instead of enlightened leader, McConaughey is something of a white savior in a feel-good sports movie, as if he’s a parent who, by unforeseen circumstances, coaches an underprivileged baseball team to win the state championship.
In fact, the white savior narrative is so pronounced here, it’s almost stunning to think of the lengths to which Ross must have gone to maintain it. Whenever it seems a non-white character exercises some amount of sovereignty, they’re always under the purview of Knight. And when freedom comes, and they are not constantly guarded by Knight, tragedy strikes, as if to say whites must always protect non-whites. The film attempts to tell a surreal and inspiring American story. But the refusal to abandon the white savior narrative and its juxtaposition with this long, sprawling tale indicates that the myth is as American as the story itself.