Movie Review: The Free State of Jones

Schedule-wise today, I had a choice of going to see either “The Shallows,” or “The Free State of Jones.” Although so far, the latter has gotten low ratings on the Rotten Tomatoes website, even being beaten by “The Secret Life of Pets,” I decided on “The Free State of Jones,” because after watching it, I was not going to have nightmares about Matthew McConaughey trying to bite my leg off.

The children’s writer, Katherine Patterson wrote a book called “Bridge to Terebithia,” (also made into a movie), in which two preteens get tired of being bullied and discounted by the various people in their lives, so they go off into the woods and found their own magical kingdom where they can be in charge. In “The Free State of Jones,” Matthew does something similar, only this is “based on true events.” In the first twenty minutes of the movie, which takes place during the Civil War,  a series of unfortunate events occur that cause Matthew to question everything he used to believe: including having a loved one die in his arms, losing another loved one, being mauled by a dog, and being left temporarily alone in a desolate, snake-filled swamp. At this point, the war is not going well for the South, so after deserting the Confederate army, Matthew returns home to his wife (Keri Russell), but soon becomes an outlaw, when his “crime” is discovered, and takes up residence in said swamp. With a runaway slave (Mahershala Ali), who he helps reunite with his children, Gugu Mbtha-Raw, who is also being mistreated by her master (but seems to have a lot of free time to sneak away and bring supplies to the camp), and assorted malcontents of different colors, ages and gender, Matthew decides to create a “free state.” However, this does not go over well with the Confederate army, who retaliates in a variety of ways, most involving people getting shot, blown up or burnt to death.

The movie occasionally jumps ahead eighty years later where a male descendant of Matthew’s character is being tried in court for allegedly having African American blood, and also having the temerity to marry a white Southern woman. This is because eventually, Matthew falls in love with Gugu and starts a family (it’s never explained how Keri supports herself while her husband is AWOL, but she eventually shows up and becomes part of the commune). After the Civil War ends, there’s more battles to be waged, over desegregation and voting rights. None of the day-to-day logistics of living in a swamp and remaining basically clean are explained, except we hear that Matthew figures out a way to grow crops there, thus ensuring everyone doesn’t starve.  The ending is not upbeat at all, and even though moving stuff happens to the characters all the way through, it just kind of meanders to an end. One of the trailers I saw beforehand was about an African-American slave in the same time period, who becomes a preacher and then leads a revolution of slaves, so if you want a movie with a non-white savior, it looks like there’s one coming out in the fall.

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