On top of trying to be a Big, Important Film, Jones is also meant to be a showcase for McConaughey’s post-Oscar relevance as a dramatic actor, and he turns in a solid but unmemorable lead performance.
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Too robust to sink into the rhythms of a character study, but too financially limited to tell a story that matches the sweep of its director’s vision, Free State of Jones is a film divided against itself, and it cannot stand.
After its bracing opening, the film begins to indulge the worst impulses of well-meaning liberal cinema.
Ross wants to shake up the format—notably with a few scenes set 85 years after the war—but like so many directors who have tackled historical social issues before him, he confuses noble, cornball sermonizing for art.
The movie remains quiet and deliberate, a synonym for “boring” in some minds (though not mine). In the end, it becomes an allegory for the times in which we live.
Free State of Jones is an extraordinarily ambitious film, and for that reason, it’s not perfect.
For all the ravaged surface appeal of McConaughey’s performance, the character is a little too good to be true, but then, that’s just the sort of movie Free State of Jones is. It’s a tale of racial liberation and heroic bloodshed that is designed, at almost every turn, to lift us up to that special place where we can all feel moved by what good liberals we are.
That you may learn a good deal about an unusually driven man, but never quite feel emotionally connected to him, means Ross has hit a workmanlike middle, crafting a handsome textbook more than a blood-pumping portrait.
Although occasionally stirring, the film rarely rises above the level of intriguing anecdote, resulting in a deeply drab drama enlivened somewhat by Matthew McConaughey’s empathetic performance.
A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones.