Civil War drama of­fers grip­ping, frus­trat­ing tale

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

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, like Oskar Schindler 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) that in­cluded de­sert­ers and run­away slaves alike. 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.

He fa­thered five chil­dren in his com­mon-law mar­riage to a former slave and nine more with his wife. Both fam­i­lies shared the same 160-acre farm. Pro­gres­sive hero or back­woods dis­grace? The ar­gu­ments, ac­cord­ing to the Smith­so­nian piece and half-dozen books on Knight’s life, con­tinue to this day. Even if you carve Knight’s rich per­sonal life out of a cin­e­matic retelling, you’d still have a rebel who, in 1864, man­aged to pre­vail over the Con­fed­er­ates in Jones County, Miss., and de­clare the county the Free State of Jones.

As the film be­gins, Knight scram­bles across bat­tle­fields as a Con­fed­er­ate medic; soon his eyes are fully opened to the war’s MPAA rat­ing: R (for bru­tal bat­tle scenes and dis­turb­ing graphic im­ages) Run­ning time: 2 hours, 19 min­utes Opens: Thurs­day even­ing 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. Soon, 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 Re­con­struc­tion­era 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 some 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 great­grand­son Davis Knight is on trial in Mis­sis­sippi for mis­ce­gena­tion. The leaps ahead are meant to il­lu­mi­nate how things have changed and how they haven’t, but the in­ter­po­la­tions feel un­cer­tain.

With ex­treme tact, “Free State of Jones” es­tab­lishes the do­mes­tic mo­saic of Knight’s do­mes­tic lives. Gugu Mbatha-Raw por­trays the slave-turned­com­mon-law wife, Rachel; Keri Rus­sell has a cou­ple of scenes as Knight’s first wife, Ser­ena, who at one point calms Rachel’s new­born, and the women share a “isn’t this nutty?” laugh that hints at every­thing Ross can’t make time for in a 139-minute movie. He’s a film­maker of con­sid­er­able taste, but of­ten in “Free State of Jones” we feel like vis­i­tors to a his­tor­i­cal reen­act­ment site.

McConaughey is too wily and 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 Tri­bune News­pa­pers critic.

STX EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

Matthew McConaughey, left, and Ja­cob Lofland fight with Con­fed­er­ate forces in “Free State of Jones.”

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