Director: Gary Ross (2016) BBFC cert: 15
Matthew McConaughey is the Hollywood romcom star who so successfully reinvented his career he won an Oscar. In only his third leading role since his 2014 success in Dallas Buyers Club, he gives a brooding and impassioned performance in this high minded American civil war drama.
What begins as an exciting action movie develops into a sincere and somber look at how the wealthy white elite kept their grip on the lives of freed slaves when the fighting stopped.
Newton Knight is a confederate deserter who leads of an insurrection during the American civil war. McConaughey hides his leading man looks behind long hair and a ragged beard, mostly saving his charm for Rachel. The underused British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw does well to bring depth to her role as a slave who joins his band of outlaws as they hide out in the local swamp.
The two leads ensure it’s always watchable and there’s no shortage of battles, burnings, hangings and evil deeds by the Ku Klux Klan. But brief flash forwards to a court room drama involving Knight’s great great grandson muddy the narrative flow, and the story becomes mired in the Mississippi swamp.
Although the film is keen to flag up its the accuracy of its historical accuracy via contemporary photographs and on screen captions, Knight is presented as an unrealistic combination of Robin Hood, Che Guevara and Jesus Christ.
As a revolutionary socialist who preaches from from a bible, Knight inspires slaves, farmers and women to take arms against the powerful and the rich. They declare themselves the free State of Jones.
However as Knight moves from pacifist medical orderly to merciless killer and then political activist, he suffers from an alarming lack of self reflection and none of his horrific experiences seem to affect him. And if he isn’t moved by what he sees, there’s no reason why we should be.