Matthew McConaughey can do no wrong on screen these days. And that's a real problem for the actor's latest film.
“Free State of Jones” finds McConaughey bringing a little known American hero to life. We can accept Hollywood sanding off the flaws of such figures. What’s done here isn’t just a spit shine. It’s a full-on makeover complete with a “Big Love”-style subplot.
It’s a similar technique applied to the rest of the film.
Yet when “Jones” focuses on the inhumanity of slavery, and God’s role in our nation’s founding, it boasts a power to rival any superhero film.
McConaughey is Newton “Newt” Knight, a medic running from one dying Confederate soldier to the next during the Civil War. He’s seen enough bloodshed and so have we, thanks to director Gary Ross’ unsparing closeups.
Newt just wants to go home to his wife and child. So he does, abandoning the Confederacy in the process. That makes him a wanted man, but he refuses to stay hidden.
Instead, he starts a colony of like-minded souls. He gathers Southerners against the Confederate position along with black slaves who hunger for the freedom they deserve.
Together, they stake out the true American ideals, assuming they can stave off Confederate attacks in the process.
A Civil War epic doesn’t need balance in covering the North vs South battle. “Jones” still pushes the narrative too far when it comes to the protracted fight. The freed slaves are uniformly noble and just. Newt’s actions are always heroic, as if he knows just where to stand on every issue – and how to appear gritty yet majestic in doing so.
And the Confederate soldiers are often without redemption.
FAST FACT: The real Newt Knight once burned down a school that refused to teach mixed race children.
What’s worse, a potentially knotty subplot is treated like a fly to be swatted at or ignored. Suffice to say Newt’s Facebook romantic status would read as … “Complicated” by modern standards.
Surely, the real Newt had some flaws. If he didn’t, the screenwriters should have whipped up a few, if only to give the character texture.
The film’s political subtext, seen through the eyes of a 21st century viewer, are all over ye olde map. Newt sometimes addresses income inequality like a Bernie Sanders’ stump speech. Then, he passes out weapons to his fellow travelers in a lock and load tribute to our Second Amendment.
He speaks of God and how He connects to the freedoms all Americans should enjoy. And yet a ham-fisted storyline tries to tie the horrors of slavery to a 20th century footnote.
Ross of “Seabiscuit” and “The Hunger Games” fame makes us feel every element of 19th century life. The blood caked on the floor where wounded soldiers await treatment. Newt’s forehead covered in dirt up to where the edge of his cap covers. The period decor that feels lived in but not in a fussy, Hollywood manner.
McConaughey isn’t well served by the deity treatment, but he’s still a force you believe could rally hundreds to his side. His days as rom-com eye candy feel so long ago. Now, he’s weathered and gruff, a farmer ready to fight for his liberty and defend the defenseless. When Newt makes a speech, you watch the actor’s eyes light up as if powered by some unseen force.
He makes the story register even when the screenplay takes a knee.
The actor’s dedication is a perfect match for what Newt does on screen. And it’s hard to imagine “Free State of Jones” without his commitment, his grace.
6 out of 10 stars
The Fundamentals of Caring
Paul Rudd’s latest dramedy might represent the future of indie filmmaking.
“The Fundamentals of Caring” scored big at the Sundance Film Festival, but it makes its official release not with theaters but via Netflix.
That means it’s a dud, right? Why would filmmakers work with Netflix when they could score even a modest theatrical run?
That thinking is so 2015.
Rudd stars as Benjamin, a middle-aged man studying to become a caregiver. It seems an odd career shift, but we eventually see he could use some caring himself.
He’s paired with Trevor (Craig Roberts), an 18-year-old Brit with a form of Muscular Dystrophy. The young man lives a completely bubbled life. Everything is set in stone, from his medication schedule to his rare trips outside.
That’s no way to live, Ben thinks, especially when Trevor’s condition will significantly shorten his life span.
So no sooner than you can say, “road trip,” the two leave Trevor’s home for a trek across America.
Colorful characters. A surprise love interest. Fights. Friendships fractured and then reborn.
We’ve seen just about all these tropes before in road films. And they appear for inspection more or less right on cue. That doesn’t mean they’re any less effective, or engaging to watch.
Rudd, so uniformly good he’s never fully appreciated, brings a darkness to Benjamin that spikes the caregiver/patient bond. So does Patrick.
His Trevor can be a jerk, a button-pushing trickster who won’t let you pity him. Never.
Writer/director Rob Burnett, best known for executive producing “The Late Show with David Letterman,” captures the humor born from uncertainly. And fear, plenty of fear.
Trevor’s condition is chronic, debilitating. His wit may keep the pain at bay, but nothing works forever. Ben suffers in a different way, stung by an impending divorce and a loss impossible to forget.
You’ll wish Burnett would shake up the road trip formula just a wee bit, even if for a sequence or two. Sure, Selena Gomez shines as the hitchhiker with the heart of gold, but even her calculated sass seems too precious, too right on the money.
“The Fundamentals of Caring” might have struggled on the big screen. It’s the opposite of what audiences demand at the moment. It’s small, thoughtful and occasionally profound. It lacks a single CGI character or A-list type to draw attention to the movie poster.
It could have flopped. Instead, Netflix decided to bring it directly into our homes. It’s a more than welcome house guest.
7 out of 10 Stars