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ADAM GRAHAM

Review: ‘Free State of Jones’ cuts corners on Civil War

Matthew McConaughey leads a rebellion against the Rebels in this moralizing tale about America’s darkest days

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

A well-intentioned, but heavy-handed history lesson telling a lesser-known story of a band of rebels in the Civil War, “Free State of Jones” is never able to free itself from the trappings of its overly sentimental moralizing. Call it a civil bore.

Matthew McConaughey stars in “Free State of Jones” which is based on a true story.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who defects from the war and establishes his own community in the swamps of Mississippi, eventually leading a rebellion against the Confederacy.

He first teams up with a gang of runaway slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali), who is outfitted with a gruesome spiked iron torture device around his neck. Knight offers to free him of it, even though the clanging will echo throughout the swamps and invite the attention of soldiers and their dogs.

No problem: Knight quickly — too quickly — teaches his new crew how to fire weapons and become ace marksmen, and they swiftly dispose of the soldiers and roast the dogs for food.

Knight’s reputation grows and he attracts more soldiers, women and slaves, eventually forming a free society that, under the film’s star, becomes something of the United States of McConaughey. He doesn’t say “alright, alright alright,” but the Oscar winner’s rough-hewn dude charm is never far from the surface, even underneath his scraggly beard and wily eyes.

As Knight becomes the group’s leader, town preacher and moral center, he takes on numerous racial injustices and breaks down a tough war into overly simplistic terms.

McConaughey is earnest and noble in the lead role, moreso than history might have you believe about the real Knight. Writer-director Gary Ross (working from a story by Leonard Hartman) buffs the edges off Knight’s character and practically puts him in a cape, turning him into a symbol, rather than a man.

And the movie becomes a symbol, too, a checklist of America’s racial hatred that wants to draw parallels to today. We get N-word speechifying, the birth of the KKK and a history of voting prejudice, all of which feel crammed in despite the film’s laborious 139-minute running time.

Mahershala Ali, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in the Civil War drama.

Ross (“Seabiscuit,” the first “Hunger Games” film) stuffs so much into his story — including a 1940s court case that’s wedged in like a jam underneath a door — that he’s forced to offer up title cards that act as explainers to fill the narrative gaps in his story.

Meanwhile, the women in the film — Keri Russell plays Knight’s wife, Serena, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Rachel, the former slave whom Knight teaches to read and takes as his common-law wife — are wasted, reduced to sad and pretty faces, respectively.

Ross stages several battle scenes with a bloody realism that is graphicly jarring. But his attempts to lend the film a “12 Years a Slave”-style grit are undercut by his own need to tidy everything up into pre-packaged take home lessons: War is bad, racism is worse, etc.

Early in the film, Knight is disillusioned when a young soldier he’s offered to mentor is suddenly killed. “He died with honor, Newt,” a fellow soldier tells him, while Newt rebuts, “No, he just died.” The same can be said for “Free State of Jones.”

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘Free State

of Jones’

GRADE: C

Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images

Running time: 139 minutes