It's a Civil War era story at its heart. Then it gets into Reconstruction which isn't nearly as interesting. Lincoln is fascinating. When a movie has to trot out the name of Andrew Johnson, it's lagging. So involved and broad is this movie, we get subtitles - subtitles! - to help us along with the dragged-out narrative. Is this a Ken Burns documentary? A Burns documentary would have its place reminding us of the significant facts which stretch into post-war KKK activity. I never need to see a lynching on the movie screen. I'd much prefer just reading about it. A movie should be relaxing and reasonably entertaining to watch.
"Free State" is ponderous, over-lengthy and really rather turgid. This is despite the presence of Matthew McConaughey who almost saves it. This actor - I don't want to spell his last name again - is a "natural" with his talents. He should have looked at the script and said "distill this down to the most dramatically interesting elements please."
What I'm citing here are matters that all history-based movies should strive for. Movies are entertainment even when seeking to explore sobering historical chapters. Our attention span is limited there in the theater.
The movie "Gettysburg" (with Jeff Daniels and Tom Berenger) was set up as one part of a trilogy. We then got the sequel or "prequel" that was supposed to represent the first part of the war. The scheme for making that prequel was totally different from "Gettysburg." They should have seized on a particular pivotal event or battle early in the war and used it as grist for an interesting story with that small and manageable cast of characters. So simple to understand. But the moviemakers get carried away or blinded by the gravity of their subject.
The Civil War determined whether we'd be one nation or two, although many argue that the rebellion was a doomed cause resisting the forces of history (just like the Jim Crow South subsequently).
The prequel movie was "Gods and Generals." The title itself exudes that sense of awe about the subject matter. I anticipated this movie very much. I drove to Alexandria MN to watch it. You'd better empty your bladder before seeing it. However, you might not want to watch it to the end anyway.
I almost could not endure "Free State of Jones" all the way to the end. I began thinking "it must be close to being done now." Then it would plod on. Congratulations: I realize this movie represents some very important history. But in the movie theater I'm not taking notes for a college class. I want to see an engaging story that keeps my interest.
The Civil War trilogy ground to a halt because the prequel was so bad, so utterly turgid, the third installment never got made! "Gods and Generals" covered a broad timeline with disparate characters. It neglected its mission as a movie. No subtitles should be needed. Tighten the story. Think how tight the story was for "Midway," the movie about the great sea battle of WWII (Charlton Heston).
Oh, to escape to a swamp
"Free State of Jones" shows outcasts finding refuge in a swamp. Here I couldn't help but be reminded of the old campy movie "Swamp Thing." The swamp creature in that movie uttered a line that stuck in my head: "Much beauty in swamp - just have to look." The line is meaningful because God really did give us beauty in all environments on our Earth, right? Some beautiful flowers are seen in swamps.
I'm also reminded of the famous story about Jimmy Carter - he told it actually - about being in a boat in a swamp when a menacing rabbit swam toward him! I'm sure swamps are a fascinating ecosystem. In the movie "Free State of Jones," it's where refuge can be found from the military people and their horses. It seems like a fascinating, exotic escape - no ambient sounds. I imagine a Boy Scout campout.
Being self-sufficient in this environment is more challenging than what we sense watching the movie, I'm sure. Those scouts would have peanut butter with them.
McConaughey - there I go having to look up the spelling again - and his fellow malcontents end up eating a dog. This is one of the dogs sent by the bad guys to pursue them. Earlier in the movie we see the heroic character get attacked severely by a pursuing dog. He is then tended to in that swamp place. However, the severity of the attack makes me wonder if he ever could have survived. This was in the days when infections killed people. Calvin Coolidge many years later lost a son because of a blister that led to an infection, from having played tennis at the White House tennis courts.
We forget the early mortality of so many people in long-ago times. I would suggest that an attack dog could be like a death sentence in the old days. But our heroic character in "Free State of Jones" gets patched up just fine, and he's ready to be a saintly hero through the rest of this story. He's a "white savior" type of hero which can be sensitive ground on which to tread.
The rebellious behavior from that swamp sanctuary represents the most engaging part of the movie. We see the rebels (fighting the real "rebels") employ guerrilla tactics in the middle of a funeral. They are totally justified with their vengeance. The funeral scene might well be considered the high point of the movie.
It seemed weird shortly thereafter seeing a battle scene in Ellisville MS where women in long dresses were right up at the front line of the musket-shooters. They may have been heroines but it was disrupting to see the women so up-front. I think we see a woman only once in the movie "Gettysburg." She's watching a troop company tramp by and merely says "I thought the war was in Virginia." Civil War battles were men's work.
"Free State of Jones" has been described as "a mashup of vignettes." Quite true. Creative people need discipline imposed on them sometimes. Writers like me need editors. With this post I have no editor - sorry for any shortcomings. But money is at stake with movies.
Languishing at box office
"Free State" got mixed reviews and grossed just $25 million against its $50 million production budget. The Civil War is exciting. Reconstruction (with Andrew Johnson) is not. "Free State" was projected to gross around $10 million in its opening weekend. The promos I saw on TV made me interested. When I finally checked out the DVD from our Morris Public Library, I thought "this movie has to be better than the reviews I've read." But whenever I have thought that, I end up realizing the reviews were pretty much accurate. An exhibit: "Because of Winn-Dixie," a dog movie. Jeff Daniels was in that. I saw it in the theater, thinking "this has to be a decent movie." Well. . .
Daniels was better in "Gettysburg" when he yelled "charge" at Little Round Top. Actually the movie could have ended with that charge at Little Round Top. Didn't we get an intermission and then the whole predictable story about the doomed Pickett's Charge?
"Free State of Jones" grossed $7.6 million on its opening weekend in June of 2016. So it was sixth at the box office behind "Finding Dory," "Independence Day: Resurgence," "Central Intelligence," "The Shallows" and "The Conjuring."
It's sad because I sort of root for Civil War movies. They say conflict is an essential part of drama. Civil War combat presents conflict in its absolutely purest form. Historically it's significant that so many young men were willing to sacrifice their lives in such a manner. Actually I'd like to see a re-make of "The Horse Soldiers," a 1960s movie with John Wayne and William Holden. That movie was based on the real-life Grierson raid into Louisiana. Try to imagine the actors who would be featured today.
The St. Albans raid by the Confederates is another interesting story once presented in a movie.
Don't ever forget the movie "Swamp Thing." When I say it's campy I'm not really diminishing it. Remember the female heroine? It was Adrienne Barbeau.