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Review: McConaughey's 'Free State of Jones' a gripping, frustrating Civil War drama

| Thursday, June 23, 2016, 8:55 p.m.
Matthew McConaughey (left) and Jacob Lofland in 'The Free State of Jones'
STX Productions
Matthew McConaughey (left) and Jacob Lofland in 'The Free State of Jones'

In so many Civil War-era photographs, a bone-weariness of spirit, coupled with a kind of faraway intensity, lurks in the soldiers' eyes. Plenty of actors can fake that sort of thing, but Matthew McConaughey really does have it. He looks right and convincing in a period drama such as “Free State of Jones,” the historical biography, equal parts intrigue and frustration, written and directed by Gary Ross.

McConaughey plays Newton Knight, who like Oskar Schindler is an anomaly in a horrific time and place. Knight, a pro-Union Mississippi native, marshaled a guerrilla war against his own side, the Confederates, with troops (as many as 500) including deserters and runaway slaves. In modern-day Mississippi — there's a fine March 2016 Smithsonian feature about Knight's complicated legacy — this “Southern Yankee” remains a hugely divisive figure. In 1864, Knight managed to prevail over the Confederates in Jones County, Miss., and declare the county the Free State of Jones. That is highly promising movie material.

As the film begins, Knight scrambles across battlefields as a Confederate medic; soon his eyes are fully opened to the war's costs and the way it grinds through white and black lives. Ross' script deftly sets up Knight's moral awakening. In an early scene, a nephew of Knight's is killed on the battlefield. Knight turns his back on the war — and his guns against it.

In another early scene, Knight breaks the terrifying neck-shackle loose from the formerly enslaved Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali). In the Reconstruction-era sequences, “Free State of Jones” turns much of its attention to Moses and his efforts to register voters among newly freed slaves. Knight's own postwar activities are rather hastily covered, and you can tell Ross ran into trouble working everything in, judging by how often he relies on expository title cards placed on top of gorgeous black-and-white period photographs.

These have a way of tossing us out of the story. So do the flash-forwards to 1948, where Knight's great-grandson Davis Knight is on trial for miscegenation versus the state of Mississippi. The leaps ahead are meant to illuminate how things have changed and how they haven't.

With extreme tact, “Free State of Jones” establishes the domestic mosaic of Knight's domestic lives. Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays the slave-turned-common-law wife, Rachel; Keri Russell has a couple of scenes as Knight's first wife, Serena, and at one point Serena calms Rachel's newborn and the women share an “isn't this nutty?” laugh that hints at everything Ross can't make time for in a 139-minute movie.

Ross is a filmmaker (he did well with the first “Hunger Games,” among others) of considerable taste, but often in “Free State of Jones” we feel like visitors to a historical re-enactment site. From camera composition to production design, everything looks and feels fresh-scrubbed and somewhat staid, and you don't quite believe what you're seeing. McConaughey, fortunately, is too skillful an actor to falsify his end of the bargain. Ross' smooth, steady film is just interesting enough to make you wish it were a lot grittier, and better.

Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune writer.

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