I'm convinced I endured the full four years of the American Civil War in the two hours and 19 minutes it took to watch the interminable Free State of Jones.
Fresh off his Oscar-winning performance in the controversial medicine drama Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey buries his charisma and screen presence beneath a layer of historical grit and grime to play Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Civil War solder turned deserter who adopts an antiwar stance after experiencing the atrocities of war. Having lost a loved one on the battlefield, Knight carries the man's body back to Jones County, Mississippi... and it's there he decides to stay. He retreats into the woods, establishes a community of dissenters and runaway slaves, and begins to push back when his fellow Confederates come to claim the bounty that's now on his head.
That's the bare bones of the messy structure cobbled by director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games), who takes an eternity to get to the seemingly important moments in Knight's journey without ever emphasizing why we should invest in them. Knight wears several hats throughout Free State of Jones, changing them at will (to the detriment of the story). He's a nurse helping men on the battlefield. He's a pillar of support for his hometown, training young girls how to hold rifles for when scary military men come knocking. He's a tender and sympathetic ear for the former slaves. He's a stoic military strategist willing to stand up to Sherman when that fire-wielding general makes his way through the Southern States. It's as if Free State of Jones is a 15-act play, and because it lacks a clear and concise through line, none of the scenes are properly connected, outside of the presence of McConaughey.
All of this might be excusable if the movie was engaging, but Ross keeps the energy levels in Free State of Jones hovering around a 2 (on a scale of 1 to 100). The entire film plays out as if Ross explained to his cast that they were performing in the middle of a library, and speaking above a whisper would disrupt the patrons who are within earshot. Without exaggeration, the air-conditioning system in our theater would hum to life at regular intervals during our screening of Free State of Jones, and the minute the system kicked on, it'd drown out any dialogue being attempted on screen. For large chunks of Jones, Newton Knight and his supporters are hiding out in the swamps, avoiding the military superiors who want to force him to fight. But did McConaughey have to bottle his natural presence? Why hire McConaughey if you aren't willing to set him free.
That's not even the most confounding decision made on Free State of Jones. Though Ross adequately depicts the era in his scenes set during the Civil War, there's a framing story set in a courtroom 85 years after the story of Knight that, sadly, makes no sense. It involves a descendent of Knight and his African-American lover (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but Ross checks in on the courtroom drama so infrequently that we rarely understand how it ties into McConaughey's story. And when that thread is finally sewn, it's such a "Who gives a shit?" that you wonder why Ross even bothered. The last thing Free State of Jones needed was additional, bloated narration that ultimately goes nowhere. The whole movie's made up of such nonsense.
Free State of Jones is a noble, quiet, solemn and slow historical drama -- polite words for saying it's duller than dirt. It's told with the passion of a person dictating passages from a history textbook. It has the dramatic enthusiasm of a professor droning on to a classroom of half-asleep undergrads biding time in a lecture hall on a Wednesday morning in February. If that sounds like fun, by all means, enjoy.