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McConaughey shines in ‘Free State of Jones’

Matthew McConaughey stars in Free State of Jones.
Matthew McConaughey stars in Free State of Jones. Murray Close

Matthew McConaughey looks like a Confederate soldier. He has the cold blue eyes and the steady gaze you find staring out from old daguerreotypes, and in Free State of Jones he also has the slicked-back, unwashed hair and the aura of a man who’s from the 19th century and proud of it. He looks young and yet older than time.

The film, directed and co-written by Gary Ross, tells the story of Newton Knight, a soldier who deserted the Confederate army and then led an insurrection against it. With a makeshift band of escaped slaves and disgruntled farmers, he held several counties in Mississippi against Confederate forces and survived the war. He created his own free state, based on the idea that “every man is a man” and that “no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich.”

Free State of Jones is extraordinarily ambitious, and for that reason, it’s not perfect. Through Knight’s story, it attempts to tell the history of Reconstruction, and at times, despite the movie’s length, events seem rushed. Nonetheless, this is a comprehensive and honest portrait of a pivotal and misunderstood period of American history.

Knight is a witness to carnage as the movie begins, working as a nurse in the Confederate Army. Like a lot of soldiers at the time, he sees the conflict as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Circumstances lead him to desertion, and he comes home to Jones County, Miss., to find his own people struggling. Poor farmers are having their corn and their livestock confiscated by the army. They’re being left to starve, while the wealthy landowners, who started the war, are not only staying rich but avoiding service.

As played by McConaughey, Knight has two traits that are much rarer than they should be: the ability to see what’s going on and the courage to admit it. So Knight isn’t bound by false concepts of honor, and he’s not a racist, even though he lives in a racist world. Neither a liberal nor a philosopher, he’s just a naturally fair-minded person. Soon his effort to escape the hangman throws him into the company of escaped slaves, who live in a swamp where the army can’t bring its horses.

The swamp is a magical place, where rowboats seem to float on leaves of grass. Ross captures that hint of enchantment, while staying true to the era. So teeth are dingy, clothes are old, and the women don’t wear makeup. Beyond that, Ross has a feel for how people talked and thought, as when Keri Russell, as Knight’s first wife, says, “The rebs burned my first farm. Sherman burned my second. At least they agree on that.”

Even as it looks back, Free State of Jones also looks ahead to the promise of a new America, as when Knight and his second wife, Rachel — a former slave played with alert sensitivity by Gugu Mbatha-Raw — look at their newborn child. They can’t decide if the baby looks black or white, and then Rachel tells her son, “You’re just a brand new thing, aren’t you?” She says it simply, but we feel the impact. This is the United States. This is what it has always been about — people coming together from all conditions and locations to make things that are new and beautiful and that change the world. Ross distills it all into that moment. It can give you goosebumps.

Movie review

‘Free State of Jones’

Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images. 2:19. Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.