REVIEW: “Free State of Jones” is a nervously shrill screed

Image: STX Entertainment

Despite overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of firearm bans similar to those in place across Europe and Australia, there’s a reason we’ll never see such legislation stateside: freedom and guns are as American as baseball and apple pie. Even a cursory glance at our bloody 250-year history reveals the singular role guns have played in the formation and maintenance of our Union. We’re an erratic, principled, contradictory bunch.

Those adjectives apply to Free State of Jones too. Inexplicably arriving in theaters in the thick of a season normally reserved for escapist fare, the movie is both a portrait and a provocation—a mirror enamored of its own reflection. It’s infatuated with viscera and fury as much as piety and passion, and it takes its own embellished narrative as gospel. Within seconds of the start, we’re thrust into the Battle of Corinth with a ferocity grimmer than Matthew Brady’s worst nightmare. We see battlefields littered with putrid, pulpy husks and rudimentary, amputation-happy “hospitals” dripping with severed flesh. It’s a kinetically violent vision notable for its sheer vibrancy. In a movie set almost entirely outdoors, Mississippi’s grassy hills, royal skies, and leafy swamps are brought to a lush, splashy life that’s under constant threat from Johnny Reb and his glowing, crimson flag. Even the uniforms pop.

After deserting his regimen and returning home, Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight is chased by the Confederacy to a swampy backwoods colony of runaway slaves. Knight is skeptical of the Cause from the start—it’s a rich man’s war, he says—but his rage turns feverish once he goes rogue, and the camera heightens the pitch by buzzing around McConaughey (gaunt frame, frenzied eyes, spiked teeth) in a jittery violation of personal space as the creaking wildlife blasts from the soundtrack. Before long, a sizeable deserter army sprouts around Knight. As the local peasantry runs guns, Knight trains his followers in guerilla warfare and preaches proto-Marxist rhetoric.

Steeped in fiery scripture, revolutionary populism, and the way of the gun—Knight teaches one disciple to read using the plaque on his Remington—Knight’s clan is modeled on Founding Father militias but more closely resembles an authoritarian personality cult not too far removed from Fidel Castro or Mao Tse-tung. The sect secedes from the Confederacy and engages the occupying army in open warfare. But when they raise the Union flag after a decisive battle, it’s less a gesture of democracy than radical independence. It’s a kind of alternative-history creation myth for Southern identity that furthers the revisionist notion that states’ rights was the impetus for secession while removing slavery from the equation altogether. Mississippi, according to Free State of Jones, was and continues to be a hotbed of progressivism. (It even tacitly connects Knight’s legacy to the present by periodically flashing forward almost a century to a trial that looks something like Inherit the Wind as written by Franz Kafka and directed by Stanley Kramer.)

Free State of Jones insists on its own verisimilitude through a pious aesthetic usually reserved for official, Ken Burns-style historicity. We see real-life photographs and citations of rigged election results, but the movie invents characters wholesale and exploits classically maudlin techniques, investing them with a streak of viscerally shocking images. It’s angry stuff. But it’s also an overlong, misshapen mess, and—like Knight’s colony—some murky politics lay beneath its righteous rage. It’s a seething battle cry for rugged libertarian individualism and an ode to the Second Amendment.

The popularity of guns persists thanks to an atmosphere of heightened anxiety: the idea that one is under constant threat. Whether the fear invoked is home invasion or mass shootings, people own guns because they’re afraid. Similarly, authoritarianism stokes fears by disenfranchising the electorate and instilling a kind of popular victimhood or insecurity that only patriarch figures can protect against. Bizarre white-savior hagiography aside—the movie offers glimpses into Knight’s post-racially polygamous household and a nightmare future where simply being born unlucky enough to have Knight blood in your veins is grounds for imprisonment—Free State of Jones is a shrill screed that arrives at a moment when “making America great again” is a popular sentiment. Many wonder what, exactly, that means—when was America ever without its faults? In Free State of Jones, for a brief, shining moment, we were the country we’ve always wanted to be. In the face of that kind of sanctimony, the impulse is to rebel.

Free State of Jones. Written and directed by Gary Ross. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Opens in Kansas City June 23, 2016.

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