If Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is the hero that Free State of Jones would like us to believe he is, he deserves a better movie than this clumsily composed effort from director Gary Ross. Thing is I’m not sure Knight is that hero, and I felt that way even before reading the uncertainties raised on the real-life Knight’s Wikipedia page.
Knight is presented as a Robin Hood-like figure, leading an anti-Confederate rebellion of poor Mississippi farmers during the Civil War. He and other Confederate army deserters object to fighting on behalf of rich, slave-owning plantation owners — and, more importantly, to having their farms ransacked for supplies by the insatiable appetites of the war effort.
Knight comes to this cause after hiding out for months in swampland with several runaway slaves. In befriending them, he transforms from a disgruntled solider into a rabid Unionist. As the tide of war turns against the South, more local men rally to his cause, and he stages attacks on the army with which he once fought.
Eventually his Knight Company seizes control of a few counties and declares the area’s independence from Mississippi and the Confederacy. Only, in virtually the next scene, the Civil War is over and the supposedly inspiring declaration of self-determination we’ve just witnessed is rendered immediately meaningless.
There’s more of that in the film. During Reconstruction, Knight continues his fight for justice alongside freed slaves. There’s a standoff at the local poll when he and his black friends show up to vote. They force the underhanded election judge to yield. Then text appears on the screen that coldly tells us that the official count for Democratic and Republican votes in that county in that year completely threw out the ballots we’ve just seen cast.
Is a hero still a hero if he doesn’t have a lasting impact? There is such a thing as noble failure, but how can there be nobility if the man himself isn’t allowed to acknowledge those failings? Intercutting scenes from a related 1940s court case was, I think, meant to underline how Knight set an example for generations to come in the struggle against bigotry and injustice, but the parallel between the two stories is drawn so weakly that the courtroom’s climactic stand remains inert.
The movie deflates Knight’s story again and again, particularly through the odd decision to bridge time-jumps in the narrative via historical photographs and onscreen text rather than finding a means of more organically working the information into expositional dialogue.
It’s jarring and plays like a segment from the sort of low-budget historical biography that might be taped off PBS and played for high school students when their teacher is nursing a hangover.