Directed by Garry Ross, starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Kerri Russel. A confederate army deserter, Newton Knight (McConaughey), returns home to Mississipi and leads a group of fellow deserters in an uprising against the local Confederate Government.
The film opens with the words “Based on actual events in Jones County, Mississippi – 1862 to 1876”. That is a huge span of pivotal American history to try and incorporate into a single film. A period that witnesses the revolt of deserters against the Confederate government. The political struggle for the rights of black people by initiating the process of trying to secure their freedom in the state, fighting for their right to vote, and dealing with the uprising of the KKK. Before finally exploring the apartheid in the state that forbade interracial couples and explores its effect on future generations.
To sufficiently, and satisfyingly cover so much integral American history is highly ambitious, and though the film clearly has the right intentions, Garry Ross has somehow made one of the most boring films I have ever seen. The film becomes almost insulting to the story it is trying to tell, by placing such focus on McConaughey’s character and his life story, it seriously neglects some of the much larger issues that should instead be the focus of the film.
The film is 2 hours and 19 minutes long, which initially you accept, owing to the depth of the subject matter. However, so much of the film is lost in shots that are either far too long, or scenes that spend far too much time focusing on the wrong material, and certainly the wrong subject matter. As I say, 2 hours and 19 minutes is a justifiable length of time to spend on this subject matter, but it also needs to be responsibly allocated, which Ross and his editors rather failed to do. There was one moment in fact where I struggled to stay conscious when, during one scene where the young daughters of a family are learning to read, “Cat, Mat, Sat” are said in a rhythm reminiscent of counting sheep. This, in turn, neglects the intention of the scene where the black woman owned by the family is watching through a crack in the door to also learn to read.
Initially, you are thrown straight into the action with McConaughey who is, very briefly it must be said, playing a medic. He soon discovers a young relation of his is also fighting and wishes to leave, a plan is conceived between them, but before the two can successfully execute the plan, the young boy is shot and killed. This scene is a fantastic summation of this film, the symbology is there, a young boy who should not be fighting, who is scared, and who is taking part in a war he does not fully comprehend, a case that can be applied to nearly every war in existence. However, owing to the rushed narrative, the film fails to connect us to him within the context of this scene, so we feel empathy for the image he represents rather than his actual character and how he affects the film as a catalyst for McConaughey’s character. These moments can be found sporadically placed throughout this overly long film, really quite powerful uses of imagery and symbolism, which work fantastically as independent scenes, but fail to add anything to overall narrative feeling because you must endure 20 minutes of tedious shots of McConaughey looking pensive.
As I have mentioned, the editing is atrocious in this film, far too many pretentious self-indulgent scenes are given to McConaughey’s character Newt. Including one overly long scene depicting his life in a swamp. Though character development is crucial in these films, it is an element this film fails for any character other than McConaughey’s. It is hard to justify filming so much of Newt’s life in a swamp when 10 minutes from the end of the film, it introduces the KKK. Ross would seriously fail in any time management course.
Now I fully accept that I may not be the target audience for this film, this is narrative steeped in American history, and therefore this may not be intended as a film for one such as myself. In the same regard that some American’s may become bored whilst watching say the Netflix drama ‘The Crown’ which I personally found enchanting. So perhaps I have misunderstood why this film is really quite so slow through long periods of the film, perhaps this serves a purpose and I have horribly misjudged it, but it does feel like an eternity passed whilst I was sat and watching this film. Quite possibly this project would have benefited from a similar format to ‘The Crown’ thereby enabling us to skip large sections of tedious non-information and to those sections that actually contain substance.
The cast is also quite frustrating, though not a direct criticism of their work, but I know Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell to be fantastic actors from previously watching their work, but the entire cast feels far too comfortable in their roles, none this is a stretch on their acting ability. Russell and Mahershala, in particular, are absolutely wasted in these roles, both are becoming household names with Russell’s work in The Americans, and Mahershala in House of Cards, Luke Cage, Moonlight and Hidden Figures. For two individuals who have such screen presence, is it frustrating as a viewer to see this frittered away quite so quickly.
I have now watched two war films back to back, one was gripping and emotionally fantastic to watch, and one very nearly sent me to sleep at times. I will leave it to you to work out which comment belongs to which film.
OVERALL * Far too long, self-indulgent and at times bordering on outright pretentiousness. This focus on McConaughey’s mad weekend, distracts you from some of America’s far more interesting moments in history which are lost in one of the longest and slowest films I have ever seen.
RECOMMENDATION – If you’re American, then watch and let me know if you enjoyed this film, I would genuinely be interested. Otherwise, go and watch anything else.