This, I fear, is it. Matthew McConaughey had a surprising few years of career resurgence after a decade of bad romantic comedies, ending up in a lot of good projects and punctuating them with good performances. He was bound to falter at some point (the mediocre Interstellar (2014) and those goofy Lincoln commercials were the first signs), and now he’s finally ended up in a bad movie, Free State of Jones. And not just a bad movie, but one he can’t save from its own self-importance and dramatic doldrums.
The unfortunate thing is, Free State is topical and should take advantage of that. Set during the Civil War, it follows McConaughey as Newton Knight, an army deserter who becomes a Robin Hood-type in Mississippi, helping out poor farmers and slaves. Given our country’s history of racism and economic disparity, along with the current political climate, this is a movie that should be important. Unfortunately, this might be the problem, since director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) handles the film with the levity of a funeral service. He leans heavily on speeches and bald-faced exposition, something McConaughey can handle but which soon becomes tedious. There’s no depth to the character of Newton, just a brave, goodly man who likes to talk at everyone.
Most of the blame falls on Ross, who’s still relying too much on the shaky cam like he did with The Hunger Games (2012) and doesn’t understand how to tighten up his own script, which is based on Leonard Hartman’s story. The film’s first half, featuring Knight and his militia defending themselves against the Confederacy and the Union, works fine for what it is, an action-period piece of the inspirational variety. The latter half, which switches gears into a court case some eight decades after the war, does not work nearly as well and feels shoved into the film for added heft.
Like I said, McConaughey isn’t enough to save it, though he adds some gravity to a film that’s pretty frayed around the edges. But he — even with strong performances from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Knight’s wife and Mahershala Ali (The Place Beyond the Pines) — can’t save the film from its own stodginess. Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher.