They still make movies like this? I mean, jeez, even Edward Zwick – whose two-decade iron-fist rule over antiseptic, middlebrow prestige drama is currently on sabbatical – doesn’t seem to want to dish out this kind of blasé appease-everyone history-conscious cinema anymore. Never fear! Into the fray steps Gary Ross, another so-competent-it-hurts filmmaker with an impersonal aesthetic defined by a nonsense brand of faux-realism (wouldn’t want someone daring to imbue any sense of form or rhythm, especially the formal rhythm of genuine down-and-dirty messiness, into their precious history). After all, someone has to stand by as a vanguard for indifferent, domesticated middlebrow types looking for intelligent cinema but too afraid to actually challenge themselves. Their worries can be allayed; Free State of Jones is here to save the day.
With this new film, as it turns out, they do make them like they used to. Exactly like they used to in a film whose politics may differ from the cinematic norm but whose style is as much a turgid waxworks as they come; a furious, bleakly fatalistic opening battle aside, Gary Ross’ film settles into a petrified groove of capital-I Importance, all monologues and tortured souls and Acting with three Capital A’s just for good measure. It’s so middle-of-the-road that it induces rigor mortis in mortal terror at the thought of having to sway or swivel to either side of the street where the oncoming traffic of genuine personality and danger might lay. As a film, it expends nearly its entire allotment of energy clearing its throat, and it bears its soul only to reveal that it has no soul to bear. As a film, it is all buttoned-up, too buttoned-up, with no place to go.
Like many films that cast their lot in with history, the fundamental essence of the film is theoretically inspired; the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and his upstart rogue state deep in the Mississippi backwoods is *potentially* fascinating if the film didn’t encase the material in such a dry, academic fugue. Knight and his lot rejected the antiquarian ways of the then-present Confederacy, interrupting their false high-and-mighty stupor of unwavering Antebellum repression with a feral might, a rough-housed countenance, and a harried know-how. It’s theoretically a new content pitch for Civil War cinema, but the formal lexicon the film embodies is as old, and as dead, as dirt in 2016. This is a film about questioning the ways of your elders and your compatriots that doggedly rescinds any and all offers to actually embrace Knight’s spirit of insurrection and glorious, messy disobedience.
Apart from the caustic brutality of the opening, a sense of tone is largely missing-in-action; this war isn’t a grueling attrition or flash-bang guerilla uppercut, but an essentially aimless, misguided slog, with the film stamping every single scene with the Elephant Art gavel of Important Cinema. There isn’t a baroque cue or a self-righteous line of dialogue it won’t meet you for lunch with, and the intimate, small-scale insinuations of Knight’s quest for self-government are curiously out-of-touch with a film that threads the more-is-more needle of Big Time Implication throughout.
The genre-cinema potential in the mystifying backwoods swamps of the film’s brackish, down-water Mississippi setting is criminally underutilized, with Ross’ style as both a director and a writer emphasizing the straight-and-narrow leaden importance of the material at every turn, as if relying on expressive filmmaking might take energy away from, rather than enhance, the effect of the piece. Whatever terrifying, fell beauty might fester in the molasses-glazed swamps evaporates almost immediately when the film reveals itself to walk the aesthetic-less middlebrow path of the classic message movie. Afraid of incurring the wrath of proper, respectable types, Ross’ film furrows its brow at racism and then treats style as a parasite it must excise completely, fearing that any real filmmaking might distract from the plastic “real life” aesthetic the film drips over every pore of and crack of the film in hopes that no fascinating tangents or fluctuations in tone will shine through from the murk. For a film about rebelling against social propriety, Jones sure is as spic-and-span, as thoroughly respectable, and as conscientiously afraid to err from its appease-the-masses slant as cinema in 2016 comes.
Looking to provide another notch on his belt, star Matthew McConaughey is unable to machete through the thick, dogged swamp of well-meaning, post-racial liberalism suffusing the air around him like a foggy haze. His character is a Christ figure more than a person, with the malodorous triteness of the screenplay infecting McConaughey’s normally playful style and asking that he play every scene to the rafters in a bid for another award nomination. He’s fine, by any means, but this particular work stinks unmistakably of a once B-lister, who saved his career by staging a fiery coup with his aww-shucks Southern charisma, now a bonafide major player in the Hollywood landscape able to steal any role he wants and courting the kind of movies that are supposed to make him a success, rather than the ones he can actually carve out a soul in. Four years ago McConaughey was massaging his essential good ol’ boy rakishness into a fascinating prism of variegated tones – venal coiled-snake in Killer Joe, toxic carnival barker in Magic Mike, mythic arch-male in Mud. Free State of Jones is a competent performance, but it bears none of these personalities, nor any personality at all. It is distinctly the sort of role that serious, mainstream movie stars are supposed to take, rather a role McConaughey seems to feel particularly passionate about.
Even worse, the flim’s egregiously ham-fisted attempts to workshop national political connection out of the chasm Knight opens wide are consistently nullified by a film without a thoughtful, structural point of ingress for these large-scale political ramifications. A sub-plot involving Knight’s mixed-race descendant being put on trial for their race is shuttled into the film without an ounce of consideration as to where or why. The idea that the passage of time does not necessarily equate to a corollary of progress is always welcome, but the film has no idea how to massage this theme out, instead insisting on simply acknowledging it and stopping there. Which is the fate it prescribes for just about every door it opens, as a matter of fact.
This theoretical fount of ambivalence about the effect of the Civil War is undercut by the film’s abiding failure to cut into the post-racial egalitarianism undergirding the vibe of the whole film, ultimately fashioning itself around a good-natured white Southerner for whom race is a literal after-thought. When members of his own cabal succumb to the same racism he disowns, the film disavows the importance of actually considering the nitty-gritty of these qualms, instead waving away Knight’s own failure to understand that a racialized world does require that we consider race before arbitrarily looking past it. The film suggests that the complications within Knight’s free state are mere circumstances, flickers of disagreement, rather than fundamental reflections of the incompleteness of Knight’s blithely post-racial belief system, his exalted, uncomplicated, unchallenged, hopelessly liberal status as an embodiment of all that is good in the world. As if afraid of having to question itself, the film hermetically seals Knight’s dominion away from the outside world, creating a post-racial utopia that seldom has to implicate itself in any of the outside world’s failings.
Rather than corroding the racial fibers of society, Knight would rather look the other way with exactly the philosophy embodied by racial liberals in the 21st century who nominally disdain racism but still cross to the other side of the street when someone of a darker tone crosses their path (and, coincidentally, these very liberals would likely frown on Knight’s violent actions if they were transplanted to the modern day and performed by a person of such a darker tone). Such complications don’t fit into Ross’ vision though, and he wouldn’t have time to explore the disarray and contradiction in the idea of progress when his film expends 90% of its energy patting itself on the back. Although the film is also too cautious to actually delve within, it also dances around a well of racial relativism (implying that everyone, white and black, can be someone else’s slave in certain terms) that overlooks the codification and institutionalization of race-based slavery. Every attempt to complicate the film’s own message is insular and ineffective, taking the form of single scenes (a white man in Knight’s crew complaining about African-Americans) rather than genuine excavations of complication.
As with all such middlebrow pieces, the film questions itself just enough for it to fall into the cavern of faux, halfhearted complication; either a genuine deep-dive into bleak post-racial politics or an open-heartedly surface-level melodrama with no such aspirations, a fable rather than a bid for realism, would have been more cohesive and affective than this have-it-both-ways effort which sacrifices perspective and personality in an attempt to please everyone. Fitting its middlebrow aspirations, it is just intelligent enough to showcase how deeply unintelligent it actually is, and just dark enough to fail as either a proper excoriation of racism or a lighter, more fable-like myth about racism. The film consistently pretends that it can be both of these things, and it ends up falling into an impersonal void where every decision is calculated to magnetize to every level of audience desire. In wobbling between darkness and lightness, complication and carefree insouciance, the film reveals that it is afraid that choosing a direction might sacrifice a certain portion of its mainstream appeal.
Nowhere is the film more trapped in between tones than in its depiction of Knight, a caustic, reticent type one minute and a speechifying voice-box the next. Knight is, essentially, a messianic fable-hero, a force for good rather than a human flickering with self-doubt and personal confrontation, which would be fine if the aesthetic of the film ever once infiltrated this vein of dream-like racial bedtime story. Instead, it is a work on a not-so-desperate quest for realism and “balanced complexity”, a film where the monochromatic nature of the aesthetic is matched only by its inability to achieve the very realism and complication it beckons forth. A heated melodrama with a finger pointed right toward the Confederacy is perfectly acceptable, but Free State keeps inching toward the idea of genuine political rabble-rousing and then stepping back into a sort of faux-balance (of course General Sherman of the North won’t help Jones either, because the film wouldn’t be sufficiently complicated without one scene devoted to the North being vile).
It’s also an extraordinarily lazy motion picture, a film which exists merely to illustrate a story it is self-evidently proud of itself for having discovered and is in turn trying to capitalize on without exploring in any way beyond mere depiction. There’s an extreme pressure on the film, a surfeit of potentiality loaded with radical implications for the past and present. But nearly every image in the film is ancillary to the narrative it tells, rather than the themes implicit in that narrative. The film has not one idea about these events other than that they happened. Defensive viewers will likely proclaim that the film is an example of ambiguity, not “telling” viewers what to think, but that’s an argument freighted with excuse. Thoughtful examples of “show, not tell” raise questions and posit possible answers which then vibrate outward in a tangle of uncertainty, contacting and contradicting one another until no one answer is definitive, monolithic, or singular. Comparatively, Free State of Jones does not even seem to know the questions. It is not a dialogue between viewer and film, an unfinished project that exists to percolate in the viewer’s mind. It is, in fact, a statement, something as banal as any other film that hand-feeds us a message: it is a story which exists totally internal to itself, in service of itself, with images simply antecedent to the events they depict.
In fact, that it isn’t a melodramatic sledgehammer with its message is vaguely insulting; a more pointed argument might have given the film more fire in its bones, more of a case to make. A moral picture with a feverish fount of unearthed rage where the passion to trumpet a message solidifies a corollary backbone of filmmaking zest, courage, and excitement can even be positively divine. Hell, Sergei Eisenstein’s cinema was an aesthetically rebellious firebrand specifically because of how it was animated by social and political principles, with the social radicalism of the piece concocting a frenzied tantrum of pure cinema on the screen. Free State of Jones, however, is a tale of defiance and rebellion told with the aching lethargy and pat traditionalism of the most timid Hollywood pseudo-epic imaginable, a film that is, by its very stodgy, conservative nature, a disgrace to defiance everywhere. The passage of time is signaled not by a wearying sense of ennui, attrition, or decay in the visual fiber but by fat, mirthless text cards that stomp all over the diegesis with the countenance of a history textbook; the narrative is a parade of monotone event, not a breathing discourse on race or a primordial cry for rabble-rousing self-determination. And speaking of time passing: 2016 shows that progress is a false vision more than a reality. Free State of Jones is tantamount to another year, another flatlining Zwick-ian misfire, exactly the kind of film that Hollywood has doled out for a century. The name on the tin might have changed, but the self-aggrandizing stench is the same: commodified coffee-table history, liberalism, and racism at their most flawlessly neutered and hopelessly respectable.