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FREE STATE OF JONES and THE DUEL: Two films with Mississippi connections that could have done better…

Posted on July 4th, 2016
Posted on July 4th, 2016

by Coop Cooper

Here are two current films that have strong Mississippi connections. One takes place in the state and while the other does not, it was filmed within the state.

“Free State of Jones” – Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medic in the Confederate Army, deserts for his home in Jones County, Mississippi when a young relative is killed in battle. Upon bringing the body back to the mother, Knight discovers that his family and neighbors – all poor women and children with the men off at war – are being robbed of all of their possessions by Rebel soldiers under the auspice of a 10% war tax. In the act of defending a family from robbery, Knight is identified as a deserter and must hide in the swamps amongst a small band of runaway slaves. Amongst those slaves is a Creole healer named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whom Knight forms a relationship with. As more deserters arrive to the swamp, Knight forms a militia and is able to run Confederates out of Jones and the surrounding counties. When the war ends, Knight and his followers suffer repercussions for their efforts.

Taking place in Mississippi, but filmed in Louisiana, this film features many MS actors and hits the mark fairly well in the authenticity of its production design. It never reaches sweeping levels of melodrama as many films about racial injustice often do, but it does get its message across effectively.

The acting by the leads is generally fine and the costumes, setting and production design all feel appropriate, but the pacing is abysmal and the directing seems sub-par. If much of this film had been left on the cutting room floor, it would have been a great improvement. Instead, writer/producer/director Gary Ross felt the need to throw in every little detail and bog the story down.

The film also flashes forward to the 1950’s to a Mississippi courthouse where Knight’s ancestor Davis Night (Brian Lee Franklin) is on trial for marrying a white woman when he himself is one-eighth black, making him ineligible for legal marriage to a white woman at that point in history. While it may be historically relevant, it really doesn’t fit into the story of Newt Knight in a cinematic way.

Despite some poor plotting, directing and editing choices, “Free State of Jones” is a must-see for Civil War fans, history buffs, fans of McConaughey and those interested in civil rights history. Perhaps if the fat had been cut down to manageable level, it could have been better.

“Free State of Jones” is currently in theaters.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“The Duel” (formerly titled “By Way of Helena) – Taking place in 1888, undercover Texas Ranger David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) is dispatched to investigate a cult-like religious community suspected of slaughtering natives, blacks and Mexicans to sell their scalps for bounty. Leading this cult community is Abraham Brant, a.k.a. ‘The Preacher’ (Woody Harrelson) who is known for being both a ruthless killer and a healer with supernatural abilities. Kingston brings his Mexican wife, Marisol (Alice Braga) to aid in his cover. Upon arrival, they find Brant to be genial and accommodating. He immediately offers Kingston a job as sheriff of the town, which Kingston reluctantly accepts. As the couple integrates into the society, David begins to discover sinister intentions within the community, while Marisol falls under Brant’s spell. To complicate matters, Kingston knows Brant to be the killer of Kingston’s own father in a savage knife duel in Helena, TX twenty-two years prior.

What results is a weird amalgamation of “The Most Dangerous Game” and “The Wicker Man”. Although the story contained some interesting and usable elements, it doesn’t spend enough time exploring any of them and therefore can’t really decided what it should be. It could have been a cool psychological thriller but the stereotypical Western elements overpower that aspect. It could have been an interesting revisionist Western if the story hadn’t set up such a creepy, supernatural element which never really manifested or had any bearing on the resolution. Plus, after watching this and “Independence Day: Resurgence”, I’m not convinced Liam Hemsworth has the talent or the star power of his brother, Chris.

However, I am impressed with the look of it all and I’m encouraged that Mississippi clearly has the proper setting and local talent for such an ambitious film as this was shot primarily in the town of Greenwood, MS at the old Florewood Plantation/State Park with many local actors.

“The Duel” is currently on ‘pay per view’ and for rent on Vudu.com.

Rating: 2 and ½ out of 5 stars

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