Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones
BBD/ Raymond Hall/ Getty Images
A Confederate soldier, played by Matthew McConaughey with a scraggly History Beard, navigates a Civil War battlefield. He’s a medic, more interested in alleviating whatever suffering he can than inflicting it on anyone else, and he’s dazed by the sheer scale of pain and misery surrounding him. War is hell, his face says, and I just want to go home. The odd striking image flashes across the screen, of young men—boys, really—cut down in their prime, fighting for a cause none of them seem to really believe in, or even fully understand.
Until Matthew McConaughey looks around and says, “I know what this is all about,” and then he delivers a stirring, compassionate speech about the equality of all men and the depravity of slavery, and how they must fight this moral degradation because it’s the right and good thing to do. Haha, just kidding. What he actually says is, “This is all about CLASS!”
Cut to Matthew McConaughey living in a swamp. He’s wanted for desertion, but he’s found refuge with a group of runaway slaves who have made a home in the bayou where horses, and the bounty hunters who ride them, can’t get to them. One such runaway is Moses (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards, giving a fine performance despite truly sh*t writing), who is trapped in a cruelly spiked collar, an obvious torture device.
Moses and his comrades tend to a dog bite Matthew McConaughey suffered, while he watches Moses struggle with the collar around his neck. Eventually, several actual days later, Matthew McConaughey says, “Bee-tee-dubs, I can cut that collar off.” What follows is an Emotionally Stirring Scene of a white man literally freeing a black man from slavery and no one’s eyes fall out from rolling too hard. Moses is very grateful, and not at all upset that Matthew McConaughey sat on that information for DAYS.
Likewise, there is Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave from a nearby plantation who aids the runaways. Matthew McConaughey meets her and is fully aware she is a slave, risking her life to help him and the runaways, and that she returns to her life as a slave every time she leaves their camp, but that’s totally fine because this is a class war, and the only role slavery plays in it is that rich Southerners who own twenty or more slaves are exempted from the draft, leaving only the poor farmers like Matthew McConaughey to be conscripted into the war. That’s not fair!
Rachel explains that every night her owner rapes her, and once when she tried to fight back he beat her, too. That’s not fair, either, says Matthew McConaughey. Me being drafted and you being dehumanized and exploited and abused constantly are exactly the same thing! Your struggle is my struggle! Now we shall take action against your cruel owner! Rachel says nothing because any time inequality and/or systemic abuse comes up the white guy does all the talking. And what he says is: “All lives matter!”
Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a complicated and fascinating historical figure who really did organize a rebellion against the Confederacy from within the Confederacy. He really did separate from his first wife in order to marry a former slave—Rachel—even though that marriage was not recognized by the state because of miscegenation laws (the movie includes a clumsily incorporated twentieth-century interstitial about one of Knight’s descendants also running afoul of miscegenation laws). McConaughey doesn’t fully connect with the material, though, and he gives a rare, bad post-McConaissance performance as Knight, which probably has something to do with the fact that Free State of Jones is so deeply misguided.
This is a Civil War movie that doesn’t want to engage with the actual politics of the Civil War. The Civil War was about one thing and one thing only and Free State of Jones wants to make it about class as much as race, because white people suffered, too, you know. The Civil War wasn’t fun for anyone, but COME ON. This is barely above “actually it was about states’ rights” bullsh*t. It also doesn’t help that Gary Ross is an uninspiring director and the movie plays like it was edited in a blender. Free State of Jones is too boring to be bad in an interesting way and too infuriating to be bad in a fun way. It can best be summed up in four words: Whitesplaining the Civil War.
Attached - Matthew McConaughey out in New York last week.