Matthew McConaughey’s mouth is full of craggy teeth and speechy dialogue as Civil War mutineer Newton Knight in this drippy, vanilla, way-too-long history lesson. Knight was a Mississippi farmer who led a rebellion against the Confederacy, backed by a small army of yeomen and escaped slaves, and later helped fight injustice during Reconstruction. His messianic status is debated among historians, but the Jesus beard that McConaughey wears is historically accurate. So is the fact that Knight had children with a black woman (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), even if the subject is handled with such History Channel good taste. As Knight’s wife, The Americans’ great Keri Russell has never been so misused.
Free State of Jones is the least idiosyncratic film by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games), whose askew view of the world is fogged by period-piece banalities, worst of all in easy-to-hate villains and Knight’s ex-slave sidekick named Moses (Mahershala Ali). Unlike 12 Years a Slave, which never flinched inside its antebellum horror house, the movie lacks brio. 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. C