Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Ten Best Films of 2016: #9

In thinking back on Gary Ross’ Civil War-set “Free State of Jones” I’m struck by how many things in it I hadn’t seen before. Gritty and anything but sedate, it’s not a standard war movie with carnage at its center, though there are relatively small battles at gruesomely close range. Ross uses the war as a backdrop to bring a fascinating slice of history blisteringly to life.

Matthew McConaughey – a couple years removed now from the incredible run (“Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “Mud,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” others) that led me to pronounce him the most interesting working actor in Hollywood – plays Newton Knight, a medic for the Rebel army who leaves the battlefield to bring the body of his nephew, Daniel (“Mud’s” Jacob Lofland), home and finds himself accused of sedition. That this misapprehension precipitates Knight's becoming a folk hero of the anti-slavery movement is typical of the movie's offhandedness, a welcome change from the portentousness usually associated with its genre.

A friendly slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of "Belle" and "Beyond the Lights") secretes Newton away across a mangrove swamp impassable by the Confederate cavalry. The sea-foam green of the swamp - its surface seemingly solid rather than liquid, so that Rachel and Newton appear to be rowing on the same material Scarlett Johansson encased her victims in in "Under the Skin" (2013) -  is perhaps the most memorable of hundreds of eye-popping visuals in the movie. Not since Tanya Hamilton's Black Panther remembrance "Night Catches Us" (2011) has a film been so vividly variegated. 

Without trying hard, Newton amasses a ragtag retinue of slaves and fellow farmers. Among the slaves is Moses (Mahershala Ali, here kicking off a career-making year), whom we meet wearing a hideous four-pronged neck shackle that's as uncomfortable and haunting a symbol of slavery as I've seen. (I spent several scenes unable to focus on anything else.) After emancipation, Moses will lead the drive to register the new freedmen to vote, culminating in a memorable scene in which dozens of black men are first turned away from the polls, then allowed to vote (albeit at gunpoint), only for all but two of their ballots to be switched from Republican to Democrat.

Among the many fresh and compelling aspects of "Free State of Jones" is its understanding of the role of women in the antebellum and postbellum South. Jill Jane Clements has a small but memorable role as Sally, a publican and unofficial liaison between Newton's band and the Confederate lieutenants and colonels after his hide. Mbatha-Raw delivers on her long-touted promise with a living performance that transcends the stereotype of slavely saintliness. Rachel and Newton grow ever more intimate during the movie, and a scene in which he takes her to a hotel and she stares at and, at length, dares to touch a pretty bed made up just for her is truly lovely. 

Keri Russell plays Newton's first wife, Serena. Late in the movie, the Confederate army has burned down Serena's house and Newton and Rachel let her stay with them. Each woman recognizes and accepts - wordlessly - her new status. On the front porch, Serena cossets Rachel's new baby. "You're the only one who's made him stop crying," Rachel smiles. The scene never descends into fireworks, but, far from a missed chance, to me its casualness and quietude was riveting.

I'm sad that the critics missed the boat so badly on "Free State of Jones." The diagnosis from some quarters of White Savior Syndrome is so facile and pissant as not to merit rebuttal. This is a true story of incautious courage by women and men, black and white. It is as beautiful and brutal to behold as Steve McQueen's deserving Oscar winner "12 Years a Slave," with which it would make a great double bill. Both have corn as yellow as the sun stuck in their teeth, and cotton stuck to their souls.

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