In 1863, Mississippi farmer Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) serves as a medic for the Confederate Army. Opposed to slavery, Knight would rather help the wounded than fight the Union. After his nephew dies in battle, Newt returns home to Jones County to safeguard his family but is soon branded an outlaw deserter. Forced to flee, he finds refuge with a group of runaway slaves hiding out in the swamps. Forging an alliance with the slaves and other farmers, Knight leads a rebellion that would forever change history.
Matthew McConaughey has had a resurgence as of late ever since his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club a few years ago. He’s had better roles and has appeared in generally better films since then. The trailers made for this made it look like this trend would continue. There haven’t been too many Civil War films, at least not recently, so this may serve as a welcome change. Not too many stories have been told about Newt Knight and his impact on the Civil War so this had the potential to be interesting.
The trailers made this look like it (at least to me) was going to be more of a war film but it did not exactly end up that way. In general, films that are not like their trailers aren’t the worst thing but this didn’t fact did not exactly help this one. Because the film’s subject matter of the Civil War already has it at a disadvantage, it has to be exciting enough to keep people engaged but this unfortunately did not happen here. For a film that covers a time period spanning 14 years, very little of significance actually happened.
The film did cover Knight’s rebellion from his dissatisfaction with the war and desertion to his aligning with slaves and other fellow poor farmers. The film strayed a little from the trailers in that the story continued beyond this point because we kind of already knew what was going to happen. The plot touched at racism and the African-American civil rights movement in the south then and in the future for some strange reason as the story would occasionally abruptly shift ahead 85 years to a trial in Mississippi which attempted to determine whether a descendent of Newt’s named Davis (Brian Lee Franklin) was also partially African American as this may potentially put his marriage into question as it may potentially break the law. We are first introduced to this once Knight meets a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It then becomes fairly obvious to us that he is but this whole subplot had little to do with the film itself since it did not add anything to the film other than perhaps letting us know that racism still existed later on which we already knew to be the case.
Great performances don’t always make a movie great and this was the case here. McConaughey was okay here but he did not have much to work with here. Knight, as well as the other characters, felt too one-dimensional. The film just felt like things were happening either off-screen or in the background, sometimes for no reason, and then Knight would have a speech on right and wrong. The film seemed to follow this pattern over it’s almost 2.5 hour running time, which did make it start to feel long and tedious at times (this felt similar to Lincoln which I felt followed the same pattern but McConaughey is no Daniel Day-Lewis and the rest of that film was much better than this). He would just go on and on about how he and his town were being wronged but we never really got a sense of it, making his many speeches lose their intended impact. These speeches were definitely the highlight of the film but that isn’t necessarily saying much. The rest of the film, especially the dialogue, just lacked energy for whatever reason which made it all feel very boring.
Besides Knight, the film lacked any real character or character development whatsoever. Knight is exactly the same from beginning to end. The only other character here was a slave who Knight befriends named Moses (Mahershala Ali). He was the most interesting character here since he is the only one who grew in any way over the course of the film but the film did not spend nearly enough time with him. Because of all the time jumping, the plot felt very messy, always moving on at the wrong time allowing it to never gaining any momentum. It just felt like it was trying to do too much, never covering anything with a great amount of detail. The subject matter it tried to cover here could easily have been enough for several films or some longer history channel type film.
Overall, this was an ambitious film with the potential to be good but was ruined by a weak script and boring presentation.