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‘Free State of Jones’ Review Roundup: Matthew McConaughey-Starring Historical Epic Isn’t For Everybody

Gary Ross' newest feature tells a forgotten story, but that's not enough to win over most critics.

“Free State of Jones”

The McConnaissance is…not entirely back. “Free State of Jones,” which features Matthew McConaughey’s first major role since “Interstellar,” stars the Oscar winner in a role that should be tailormade for more awards glory: As the often overlooked and frequently forgotten Newton Knight, who launched his own insurrection during the Civil War, alongside free men and slaves alike. The film has been a long time passion project for director Gary Ross, but the final product has been labeled a misfire of a historical epic, one that goes for by-the-numbers miniseries plotting over actual passion, a film that can’t even capitalize fully on its stellar cast, which also includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell.

Most critics aren’t big fans of the film, and even the ones who liked it — or at least gave it a positive review to warrant a “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes — don’t sound entirely on board with the whole feature. Maybe it’s just…alright. (Sorry.)

"Free State of Jones"

“Free State of Jones”

Our own David Ehrlich found the film’s subject matter to be timely but ultimately hammily delivered. In his review, he wrote that film “is structured with the haphazard flow of a miniseries that’s been cleaved down to feature length, and shot with the boxed-in functionality of basic cable television; it would be a misfire even if it weren’t completely tone-deaf to the current climate.”

Still worse? “As it stands, the well-intentioned film is most compelling as an argument for the value of Nate Parker’s Sundance-winning ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ an unconvincing Nat Turner biopic that nevertheless pulses with the righteous urgency of the voiceless oppressed.” He ultimately awarded the film a C-.

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman takes the film to task for many of the same reasons, writing in his review that “it’s a tale of racial liberation and heroic bloodshed that is designed, at almost every turn, to lift us up to that special place where we can all feel moved by what good liberals we are. The historical events exert some ongoing interest, but the treatment is pious and stiff-jointed enough to leave you wondering what a two-hour-and-19-minute drama that never begins to attain the moral urgency and fascination of something like ‘Glory’ or ’12 Years a Slave’ is doing being released in the middle of the summer. Box-office prospects don’t exactly look rousing, since the film itself simply isn’t rousing enough.”

Also not sold on the story? Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who gave the film a humdinger of a single star. In his review, he writes, “If you think a thick, juicy slab of Civil War history can’t be boiled down to 145 minutes of speechifying, stultifying cinema, then grab a seat at ‘Free State of Jones.’ Like the worst civics lesson, this movie bores away at you till your reactions are dulled.” And that’s just his introductory sentence. 

The Associated Press’ Lindsay Bahr is also not a fan of the feature. In her review, she writes that “mostly it’s just labored, propelled only by the passage of time, pages worth of printed exposition on the screen and the hope that Newt’s journey is a good enough engine. And yet with all of those years covered, Newt is as defined as vapor, and his supporting characters even less so.”

Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post lauds the film for covering a little-known party of history, but takes issue with its execution. In her review, she writes that Ross is “understandably trying to cover as much incident and ideological discourse as he can — including some ill-advised flashes forward to a 1940s court case involving Knight’s descendants — [and] he winds up with an earnest but inert and unwieldy historical drama that, in its commendable attempt to rescue a forgotten figure from obscurity, too often looks and feels like ’12 Years a Woke Dude.'”

Yet the film has not been entirely maligned, and plenty of critics found things to admire within it.

The Free State of Jones

“Free State of Jones”

STX Entertainment

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott walked away a fan of the feature. In his review, he applauds the film’s grace and tact with dealing with tough stuff, writing that it handles “fraught matters with impressive tact and sensitivity. The film does not minimize the violence of slavery, including the sexual violence that was the daily experience of women like Rachel, but it also refrains from turning cruelty into spectacle. Mr. Ross has an old-fashioned faith in the power of editing, and in the ability of the audience to imagine what he refrains from showing explicitly.”

Kyle Smith of The New York Post is similarly pleased with the feature. He writes that the film “doesn’t have the righteous fury that will likely carry the upcoming slave-rebellion film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to Oscar nominations, and it glosses over the racial divide between rebellious whites and blacks. Yet it’s a fascinating, thoughtful film, willing to confront the tangled aspects of both the war and Reconstruction in a way that recalls ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales,’ which also didn’t sentimentalize either side.”

Over at The Globe and Mail, Brad Wheeler writes, “In the determinedly intense and historically honest Civil War yarn Free State of Jones, Matthew McConaughey’s guerrilla soldier-farmer shows someone how to shoot a gun, explaining the difference between half-cocked and full-cocked. Nobody does full-cock better than McConaughey.”

Time Magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek also singles out the performances in the film, noting that “the movie works as a quasi-historical ramble, thanks largely to Matthew McConaughey as Knight and the quietly valiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his second, common-law wife, the freed slave Rachel.”

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