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Review: McConaughey rebels against the Rebels in Civil War movie

  • COURTESY STX ENTERTAINMENT

    Matthew McConaughey stars in “Free State of Jones.”

  • COURTESY STX ENTERTAINMENT

    Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw appear in a scene from “Free State of Jones.”

“Free State of Jones”

Rated R (2:19)

** 1/2

Opens Friday

Matthew McConaughey — lean, dark, with hollowed, darting eyes — portrays the real-life Civil War rebel Newton Knight in “Free State of Jones,” written and directed by Gary Ross, with a story by Leonard Hartman. It’s a film that grapples with the reverberations of this period throughout our collective American conscience, and proves to be a richly rendered history lesson. It’s undeniably politically charged and deeply complex, especially through the lens of 2016. Period pieces can’t just be interpreted for the era in which they take place, but also the era in which they are made, and this one doesn’t offer easy answers.

Knight was a farmer, Confederate deserter and eventual guerrilla rebel, fighting for racial and economic equality. His legacy extends to the 1948 miscegenation trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), descended from Knight’s union with former slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). These time lines intersect in the film, demonstrating Knight’s personal legacy in the journey toward equality, but the main plot is the tale of Knight’s rebellion in Jones County, Miss., and subsequent struggles during Reconstruction.

McConaughey pitches his performance right into that sweet spot of feral nobility that marks his best work, and it’s effortless — McConaughey just exists as Knight on screen. Ross approaches the intense material with a sense of thoughtful contemplation, and an even, languid pacing. The photography of French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme underlines this approach, everything framed just so: the emerald chamber of the swamp where the rebels hide out; a soldier’s head caved in by a bullet. The camera quietly observes all.

It’s clear that Ross bit off more than he can chew in “Free State of Jones.” The story lolls and wallows in wartime violence and the rebellion, then rushes through the horrors and trauma of Reconstruction, relying on text titles to speed through the historical context. Paired with archival photos, these sections offer authenticity but feel more like a PBS documentary.

Knight astutely calls out the Civil War for what it was: an economic dispute driven by profit margins and craven capitalism, wherein rich slave owners exploited poor white folks and African-American slaves alike. But this is a false equivalency, and Knight eventually has to figure that out the hard way. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile so many difficult sociopolitical issues in the life story of one man, but Knight’s ideals were radically modern and he lived them fully.

Any American anti-government, libertarian tale goes hand in hand with firepower, and “Free State of Jones” does offer up a strong argument for the Second Amendment, a battle that rages on today. Guns are the supporting characters in the film — always close at hand, used to throw off tyranny, and symbolic as gifts, currency, even books. Guns are protectors of the vulnerable. Knight places shotguns in the hands of tiny girls and tells them to aim for the Rebs who’ve come to collect supplies. “Gun don’t care who’s pulling the trigger,” he drawls. Unfortunately, there’s a devastating, ironic truth to that line that enacts itself every day in America.

While the dream of the egalitarian, libertarian utopia of Jones proves elusive, “Free State of Jones” susses out and manifests what has become the real American dream: prosperity. It’s a dream planted here with gunpowder and watered with blood. You do indeed reap what you sow, for better or for worse.

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