By David Elliott
APPETIZER (review of Free State of Jones)
The Civil War will always be with us, resonating its fantastic cast of heroes and villains, its issues still somehow pertinent. In recent years this has mostly shifted to the antebellum period, in films like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, and the upcoming slave revolt picture The Birth of a Nation (cheekily taking the title of the 1915 pro-Klan epic). A chunk of the war itself, and many of its bloody strands, is served up in Free State of Jones. It’s about Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter in 1862 who led Jones County, Mississippi, into virtual secession from the Lost Cause.
Owning no slaves (though his grandfather had), Knight seems to have sensed early that the Dixie rebellion was a loser, and unworthy. The movie gives his motives time to bubble in the pot. He doesn’t like slavery, but he’s proudly Southern. He scorns the bias of a Confederate law allowing big slave owners to avoid conscription, yet only warms to blacks when he hides with escaped slaves in the swamps. Above all he hates that his and other simple farmers and soldiers’s families are being pillaged for supplies by the CSA military. Knight is a born leveler, though Karl Marx’s Das Kapital wouldn’t come until 1867. Knight’s education was the Bible, and his plain gift for moral rhetoric is one key to his success with both blacks and whites (the first blacks he recruits, on film, all have biblical names).
Knight, a rather wild man even before the war, had the guerrilla instincts of a natural fighter. Still, at moments Matthew McConaughey’s Knight seem almost knightly, as if blending Robin Hood, John Brown, Tom Joad and even Abe Lincoln. The script nudges some pieties, but McConaughey’s gritty, thoughtful, manly conviction as an actor holds the story together (much as Daniel Day-Lewis did for Lincoln). His growth into commanding stature does not feel forced or hollow. This is the star’s best film since Dallas Buyers Club, and includes a touching echo of his work in Mud: Jacob Lofland, one of the Arkansas boys who bonded with McConaughey in that, plays a recruit whose death ignites Knight’s rage (most of the other white Southerners are formulaic figures, almost like sacks of corn meal).
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as the fugitive slave whom Knight loved and married (after his wife fled), is pretty, genuine but lightweight. Benoit Delhomme’s fine rural imagery never reaches poetry, but then director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is not attempting art. Jones wedges into the sturdy, high-crafted tradition of Cast Away, Gettysburg, Master and Commander, Last of the Mohicans. While skipping some details, it takes us pretty deeply into history, and then pays a dramatic price for that. The climax comes with the Jones revolt, but once the war is over there is the melancholy slide through Reconstruction, the terror of the Klan, and the piecemeal destruction of the new racial justice that had been a brave premise of Knight’s crusade.
He lived to 1922, proudly pro-black, pro-Union, a loyal Republican although the party of Lincoln had by then sunken to Warren G. Harding. Once federal troops pulled out in 1877, the story of Knight and Unionist Southerners fell under the harsh shadow of Jim Crow rule, a form of slavery revivalism. He never saw the topping shame, when Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan led the Republicans to betray their heritage by courting Southern racists. This is a sure bet: Newton Knight would never have voted for Donald Trump.
SALAD (A List)The 12 Best Civil War Movies, with their directors: The General (Buster Keaton, 1926), Ride With the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999), The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston, 1951), The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012), Free State of Jones (Gary Ross, 2016), The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971), Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989), Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956), Gettysburg (Ronald Maxwell, 1993) and The Raid (Hugo Fregonese, 1954).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)The famous Welles marriage was to Rita Hayworth: “A woman as insecure about her lack of education as Rita could only be flattered by the attentions of a reputed genius like Orson. He actually seemed interested in what she had to say, something that she had not much experienced in men. He was neither vulgar nor tyrannical nor exploitive. He did not want to perform with her, merchandise her or own her. He responded to Rita’s sweetness with an unexpected sweetness of his own.” (From Barbara Leaming’s fascinating Orson Welles)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)In Mud, “Mud has returned for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the Great Love who left him for better chances … As with Paul Newman’s Chance Wayne, seeking his lost lover Heavenly in Sweet Bird of Youth, erotic nostalgia bodes ill. And like Bird’s Boss Finley, a threatening villain looms (Joe Don Baker, a brute who prays from hate). Mud is a rustic Chance, baked in a deep muddy tan and acting with feral instincts, in his wilderness of compulsive desire.” (From the Matthew McConaughey/Dallas Buyers Club chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Kindle and Nook.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan in Mud (Lionsgate Films, 2013; director Jeff Nichols, cinematographer Adam Stone)
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