‘Free State of Jones’ Feels Like ‘Cramming for a History Exam at 2 AM’ and 8 Other Merciless Reviews

The Civil War period piece starring Matthew McConaughey has a score of 23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes

Free State of Jones
STX Entertainment

Civil War dramas tend to be critical darlings (i.e. “Gone With the Wind,” “Lincoln,” “12 Years a Slave”) but reviewers are calling Matthew McConaughey’s “Free State of Jones” “tone-deaf” and a “drab drama.”

The STX Entertainment period piece, which opens Friday, currently holds a score of 23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Gary Ross tells the tale of Newton Knight’s armed rebellion against the Confederacy. It cost $50 million to make, and is estimated to make $10 million from 2,815 screens when it opens this weekend.

Critics describe the film as a “poorly structure, dubiously focused movie” that makes you feel like you are “cramming for a history exam at 2 a.m.” And TheWrap’s film critic Robert Abele, agrees.

“The movie also doesn’t entirely escape an arid, educational quality, coming off mostly as a curious hybrid of the best and the regrettable in right-side-of-history cinema,” he wrote.

See 9 of the worst reviews below.

David Ehrlich, IndieWire:

“Written and directed by ‘Seabiscuit’ helmer Gary Ross, ‘Free State of Jones’ 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.”

Tim Grierson, Screen International:

“More history lesson than compelling narrative, ‘Free State Of Jones’ is an example of what can happen when honourable intentions outpace vision or execution. Director-screenwriter Gary Ross has unearthed a forgotten chapter of the US Civil War in which a ragtag group of Mississippians took up arms against the Confederacy — even though, in theory, they were fighting on the same side of that bloody conflict. But although occasionally stirring, the film rarely rises above the level of intriguing anecdote, resulting in a drab drama enlivened somewhat by Matthew McConaughey‘s empathetic performance.”

Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Central:

“‘Free State of Jones’ is a well-intentioned slog through a potentially fascinating bit of Civil War history, brought to life only by Matthew McConaughey‘s performance, and then only occasionally. Note: It’s two hours and 19 minutes long, so make that a long slog.”

John Hartl, Seattle Times:

“Unfortunately, it’s so ambitious that it’s constantly straining to find a focus. Whereas ‘Glory’ told one story well, ‘Free State’ can’t settle down and concentrate. The effect is sometimes exhilarating, but covering several decades of Southern history turns out to be an energy drain.”

Norman Wilner, Now Toronto:

“That’s just one of several predictable developments in this long, self-serious picture, which lingers exhaustingly on its authentic period details (most of the actors wear ugly dentures to remind us that we’re looking into the past!) but forgets to galvanize the story by fleshing out anyone but Newt. Ross badly wants to be a daring storyteller, but his sensibilities are strictly middle-of-the-road. Villains are stock moustache-twirlers, for instance, and while there’s plenty of violence, the camera always looks away during the worst of it. After the devastating honesty of Steve McQueen‘s ‘12 Years A Slave,’ this just doesn’t cut it any more.”

Cary Darling, Forth Worth Star-Telegram:

“Unfortunately, the movie that director/co-writer Gary Ross (‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Seabiscuit’) has written is well-made but struggles to be an all-encompassing, nearly 2 1/2-hour epic that gets mired in historical detail. The last third of the film, as it stuffs more and more in, feels less like a movie and more like cramming for a history exam at 2 a.m.”

Matt Prigge, Metro:

“There are cheesy scenes aplenty, but also smartly judged and devastating ones, and it’s clear Ross was very sincere about not making this just another reductive prestige picture. But Ross’ ambitions get the better of him. McConaughey is his cocksure, bulging-eyes, Foghorn Leghorn-purring self, but he’s as on as the movie is muddled and shapeless. What should be a gripping final hour plays like the longest epilogue since ‘The Return of the King,’ and eventually we’re overloaded with Ken Burns-y photographs and onscreen text standing in for all the excised footage.”

Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post:

Matthew McConaughey seethes with righteous fury in ‘Free State of Jones,’ a tale based on an intriguing, little-known chapter of Civil War history that, despite impeccable intentions, becomes mired within a poorly structured, dubiously focused movie by Gary Ross.”

Jake Cole, Slant Magazine:

Gary Ross‘s ‘Free State of Jones’ is a confused, rambling film that, on occasion, is one of the more honest historical representations of perhaps the defining epoch of modern American history.”