Leathery and wild-eyed, with a mossy beard and a skeptical attitude toward war, Mississippi native Newton “Newt” Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts his post as an orderly in the Confederate Army after the 1862 Battle of Corinth. He returns home to Jones County, where his relatives and neighbors live as subsistence farmers, to restore his nephew’s corpse to his kinfolk, but also as protest against the Twenty-Negro Law, which exempted planters who owned 20 or more slaves from conscription. As Newt tells one of his neighbors, a foot soldier in the same company, “I'm tired of helpin' 'em fight for their damn cotton.”
The most compelling, and certainly the most surprising, feature of director Gary Ross’ (“Pleasantville,” “Sea Biscuit”) latest film is its origin story. The script, written by Ross from a treatment by Leonard Hartman, is based on the mostly unknown real-life Confederate insurgent Newton Knight. Not to be mistaken for any kind of pacifist, the Mississippi farmer led a band of his compatriots—mostly made up of other deserters—hiding out in nearby swampland in waging guerrilla warfare against the Confederacy. At issue were the Confederate tax collections, which stripped local families of their last scraps of food and clothing.
Under Ross’ ambition to touch on the many milestones of Newt’s life, the film expands into an unwieldy sequence of charged scenes, featuring those with McConaughey and also a frame story about an anti-miscegenation trial in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi. At 139 minutes, it attempts to be both an exhaustive biopic as well as a social issues movie, yet it still feels cursory; the viewer comes away with a simplified idea of the motives behind the mutiny but not much feeling for it beyond what Ross provides through speeches filtered through contemporary sensibilities.
In particular, Ross unequivocally establishes Newt on the right side of history by dramatizing his good deeds toward the runaway slaves who then become freedmen. Newt trades his desperately needed blacksmithing skills to Moses (Mahershala Ali) in exchange for learning how to survive in the swamp and other wise life lessons. How shallowly Ross sketches the men Newt meets in the swamp would be insulting except that no character, save for Newt’s wife Serena (Keri Russell), is portrayed in full flesh or with any complications. The villains are ruthless and bad; the good guys are righteous, written with the benefit of hindsight into history.
Still, between speeches there are several astonishing moments courtesy of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme. In one, Serena lies exhausted in bed, one arm covering half her face as she looks out with one eye. The silence finally allows an opening into the moment’s emotion.