‘Free State of Jones’
Gary Ross
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Free State of Jones” is the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore. But sometimes that’s a good thing. Many a genre has fallen by the wayside as blockbusters have taken over the multiplex, and one of them is the stiff, lugubrious historical saga, where filmmakers burn epic running times fudging the truth in the name of edutainment. Thing is, “Free State of Jones” actually does boast a fascinating and not terribly well-known true tale. It also tells it by way of another type of film that deserved its death as well: Yes, it’s 2016 and we’re seriously getting another tale of the black experience told through the white perspective.

The one’s Caucasian savior is Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a hotheaded good ol’ boy who, towards the end of the Civil War, helped lead his fellow Mississippians in a rebellion against the Confederacy. Holing up in remote swampland, they formed what was part Robin Hood and his Merry Men, part proto-hippie commune (albeit one armed to the teeth), where white and black and even womenfolk were seen as equal. Initially comprised of runaway slaves and war deserters, they swelled in numbers as they took on the evil empire, only to watch as their utopia crumbled during the Reconstruction and the rise of corrupt bureaucracies and white-on-black violence.

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This is a lot of ground to cover, even over 139 minutes, and “Jones” can’t help but feel like a Netflix miniseries hacked into a shapeless blob. Individual scenes and performances stick out, and though director Gary Ross made the cornball “Seabiscuit,” he acquits himself with relative gritty restraint. (Read: There are headshots, close-ups of gouged faces, as well as some smartly elided lynchings.) There are cheesy scenes aplenty, but also smartly judged and devastating ones, and it's clear Ross was very sincere about not making this just another reductive prestige picture.

But Ross’ ambitions get the better of him. McConaughey is his cocksure, bulging-eyes, Foghorn Leghorn-purring self, but he’s as on as the movie is muddled and shapeless. What should be a gripping final hour plays like the longest epilogue since “The Return of the King,” and eventually we’re overloaded with Ken Burns-y photographs and onscreen text standing in for all the excised footage. It’s so haphazard the final cut still includes a bizarre flashforward structure, where 20 minutes in we suddenly jump to a courtroom trial 85 years later, then only revisit it twice. 

Then there’s this: What starts out as a bloody tale of ebony and ivory quickly becomes mostly ivory, only remembering the black characters in the final hour. Progressive it may be, but it can’t even show its white star kissing his black love interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and it regulates its most interesting and dynamic actor — Mahershala Ali, as a runaway slave-turned-fearless-activist — to the sidelines. It’s an impossible movie Ross just couldn’t crack.  

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge