Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Free State of Jones Review

STX Entertainment is a fairly new production company that I have been talking up a lot on my blog recently. Their goal has been to produce and distribute several medium-budget, star-driven films per year. This is an idea that I really like. I think people should pay more attention to small-budget or medium-budget films instead of only seeing the huge blockbusters. There's a lot of gems that you'll find if you do search the smaller films out. STX's first movie was The Gift from last August, which I thought was absolutely phenomenal. That got me even more exited for STX, hence is why I have been talking them up. Unfortunately, though, they've been on a bit of a losing streak recently. Although I did enjoy The Boy more than most, I didn't care to see Secret in Their Eyes and Hardcore Henry gave me a headache. Now STX is braving the war genre with Free State of Jones and this is a movie that I was super excited for. Good director. Great cast. Amazing trailers. I don't know why it was being released in the middle of the summer instead of during Oscar season, but it still looked. But holy cow! This movie is a complete mess and a disaster for STX on just about every level. I don't know who to point my finger at. There's a lot of deserving candidates. But we had a potential best picture candidate here that will now go on the books as one of the biggest disappointments of the year.

I love myself a good war movie. By no means am I an expert on the Civil War, but I do think it's a fascinating period of time to study and thus I feel it's rich field to dive into cinematically. There's so many stories to be told about the Civil War that would make for phenomenal films. Free State of Jones tells the lesser-known story of Newton Knight who fought for the Confederate army, but ended up deserting and started his own rebellion against the South. I didn't know much about these deserters and thus I was excited for this movie to teach me more about them and their struggle. Before I dive into why this doesn't work as a good war movie, I want to dive into this financial disaster that this movie has been. First issue. Why was this released in June? Not only is it a super crowded marketplace, but this is the exact type of movie that the Academy usually eats up and thus this needed to be released during Oscar season, which is the last few months of the year. Even putting the reviews aside, the subject matter and the cast would've been enough to help this make more money towards the end of the year. And it could've been able to pick up a nomination or two for someone like Matthew McConaughey or Gugu Mbatha-Raw, which would've helped it even more.

On top of this, the production budget for this was apparently $50 million. I thought STX's goal was to produce and distribute medium-budget movies. The Gift made $59 million on a $5 million budget. The Boy made $64 million on a $10 million budget. Even Hardcore Henry was a win because, even though it only made $14 million, STX purchased the movie for only $2 million. This is a plan that was working. Their goal wasn't to make a ton of money each movie, hence the small budget. So why in the heck would they have a budget of $50 million for Free State of Jones. It seems like $50-$60 million is the ceiling for this company, so why would they do a movie with a budget that was close to their ceiling? That's setting themselves up for failure. Because of that huge budget, they needed to make $100-$150 million with this movie in order to get a good product. Even with amazing reviews and great word of mouth, that may have been a hard mark to hit. But with poor reviews combined with the previously mentioned terrible release date, Free State of Jones opened to a meager $7.8 million and might struggle to even get to $25 million. With a production budget of $50 million, which doesn't even take into account marketing and advertising costs, that hurts. That hurts bad.

So many mistakes made in those regards. And that's not even taking into consideration the movie itself, which is what I'll focus on from here on out. This movie had great intentions and has some great elements to it, but overall the biggest problem is that it felt like this is a movie based off of a rough draft of a screenplay. Somewhere hidden in this sloppy mess is a movie that had potential to be a best picture candidate. But it needed several revisions to that screenplay. The biggest problem is that the movie was too ambitious. It tried to tell too much. I think that this should've focused specifically on Newton Knight's rebellion against the Confederate armies. When the war ended, the movie should've ended. In fact, they didn't even need to stretch it out that far. It could be for a year or two during the war. They could've left more post-war stuff up to our imagination or given us a few blurbs at the end to tell what happened next. But no. This movie starts in like 1962, towards the beginning of the war and tells nearly 20 years of story. But that's not even all. They periodically flash 85 years into the future, late 1940's I believe, to tell even more story. The 1940's stuff was completely useless and actually spoiled some elements of the movie. And nothing post-war intrigued me that much.

Based on the fact that this movie covers 20 years of time and then some, you might think that this is a movie that is super rushed and very choppy. No. This movie is slow and boring. And choppy. It does start out really intense as we are in the middle of a Civil War battle. Then I was really intrigued as we followed Newton Knight on his journey to becoming a deserter. There was a lot of conflict between him and the Confederate army as they were trying to track down the deserters and that conflict was great as well. But man, after like 20 minutes, the movie just got stuck in the mud. I don't mind a slow burner. Not every movie needs to be fast-paced, but if a movie is going to be slow it should be slowly building to something. There should be an emotional climax after the slow build, especially if it's a war movie. Ha ha! Nope. There is no climax in this movie and it builds to absolutely freaking nothing. It's just slow. Occasionally there is an action sequence thrown in or an emotional moment that is had, but those are few and far between. Instead we just have a bunch of sequences from Newton Knight's life just strung together pretty lazily. Like seriously, the transitions in this movie were horrible. We'd randomly jump 85 years into the future or jump one year into the future without warning or throw some historical photos as a transition or throw some text at the bottom to explain something it should've shown instead of told.

It was a mess. An unfocused mess. It seemed like they were trying to tell every detail from Newton Knight's life instead of focusing on one specific event like the story of the deserters that was advertised in this trailer. The worst part of this was the ending. No spoilers, of course, but there is one scene towards the end of the war that got super emotional and I thought that this was going to be the final climax. It should've been. But no. One of our random, lazy transitions was the movie telling us that the war was over. That felt very anti-climatic to me. The worst part was that we kept going and going and going and going. I get that the end of the Civil War didn't end all conflict in the South. But that should've been a separate movie. Let this movie be about the deserters and tell the post-Civil War movie later. Nope. We went for it here. We tried to cram two or three movies worth of story into one long, boring movie. I thought the post-war stuff would be just a minute or two. But it just kept going and at that point I got so bored that the movie caused me to do something unforgivable. I checked my watch. I wanted to know how much time was left in this movie theater turned prison. And then I cried inside when I saw that the movie had 30 minutes left. If that sequence of events happens to me during a movie, then the movie has failed.

There's a lot of fingers that need to be pointed with this movie. The first finger needs to be pointed directly at STX for the horribly timed release and the enormous production budget that made this a disaster waiting to happen. The next finger should be pointed at writer/director Gary Ross for trying to do way too much with this and crafting one of the worst war movies that I have seen in quite some time. Whoever else on the crew who was involved in the decision-making process with this movie is also to blame. It should be noted, though, that the cast of this movie doesn't deserve any blame. Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Keri Russell were our main players in this and they were all fantastic. I need to especially give a round of applause to Mahershala Ali because he was the best part of this movie. And I should mention that the visuals and the cinematography were phenomenal as well. But the story was such a disconnected, unfocused bore that none of that mattered. This was all super disappointing because I know there was a best picture winner hidden somewhere here. This movie could've been one of the best movies of the year, if not the best movie of the year. Instead it's a big pile of crap. Not the worst movie of the year, but certainly the most disappointing. My grade for Free State of Jones is a 5/10.

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