Of all the things people said against Free State of Jones when it came out - which wasn't much, because it sank like a stone from the moment it opened as one of the most self-evidently un-commercial wide releases of summer 2016 - I'm rather angry that nobody bothered to tell me how shit-ass ugly it is. I'm a little bit baffled why this should be the case. Benoît Delhomme isn't one of my favorite cinematographers, but he's got more hits than misses on his CV, and some of those hits are the very beautiful likes of The Scent of Green Papaya and The Proposition. And Gary Ross is certainly not one of my favorite directors, and I haven't found any of his three previous films - Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games - to be especially interesting to look at, but they all have a stately Rockwelliana about them that should be a slam-dunk approach for a movie set in rural Mississippi in the 1860s. Instead, Free State of Jones has been set upon by an especially rotten case of post-production color timing, one that goes all-in on hot neon blue nights and glowing green grass. It's unpleasantly bright and shiny, and that's not good at all: not good in the context of the story, which is extravagantly serious and sober and in no way wants such shrill Crayola colors; not good as art qua art.

That's all it would take for me to turn on the film, honestly, but that's just part of the cavalcade of misjudgments running throughout its swollen, plodding 139 minutes. The only thing we cannot say against the film is that it's heart isn't in the right place; indeed, Free State of Jones is one of the most sincere and passionate movies you could imagine, anxious to say something important about society, and where it came from, and where it's going, and the legacy of violence and cruelty that's as American as apple pie. It is the story of Jones County, Mississippi, a place home to brutally impoverished farmers and slaves at the time of the U.S. Civil War, who found themselves so repulsed by the Confederacy's attempt to fight a war that could only benefit rich landowners on the blood and sweat of the lower classes that they decided to rebel against the rebels. Under the leadership of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), the Jones county residents formed an egalitarian libertarian society they called the Free State of Jones, where black and white could live in peace and harmony, holding fast against the Confederate Army's incursions.

It's an entirely fascinating history, somewhat fictionalised by scenarist Leonard Hartman and screenwriter Ross, but with most of the important parts left intact. The Free State of Jones is one of those indisputably intriguing footnotes in history, and surely worthy of treatment in popular culture, and this is the thing that Free State of Jones, the movie, brings to the table that I would never deny it. It brings nothing else, outside of maybe McConaughey's performance, which is a dark, slow-burning bit of intensity, but not particularly nuanced or novel. But even if we count him, that doesn't leave a whole lot to recommend a movie that places all of its chips on "this is IMPORTANT because it is about RACIAL ISSUES" as the justification for all of the decidedly shabby storytelling that otherwise makes up the entire movie.

There are so many things that are obviously the one big problem with Free State of Jones that I'm not sure how to go about discussing them. The umbrella that covers most of it is the movie's inordinate sense of historical rigor: the film has so many scholarly advisors that they get an entire screen-filling card in the end credits. Obviously, that's all well and good, and surely none of us will argue in favor of movies that are jam-packed with lies, but in the battle between dramatic integrity and scrupulous accuracy, I'll pick drama ten times out of ten. It appears, from the evidence onscreen, that Ross does not agree with me. There are, in fact, a few very good moments scattered throughout the movie, mostly in the form of its combat scenes: these are casually violent and brutal, depicting ruined bodies and missing limbs without looking away or leering, and prone to swift, unexpected, horrible death captured in journalistic detail. Sometimes, the cinematography robs these moments of their impact, but not always - a funeral turned into a shootout is particularly strong, with the filmmaking waking up for the first and only time.

Outside of these set pieces, the film is absolutely nothing but a history lesson, presented in what feel like deliberately uncinematic terms. One of the film's very favorite tricks is to stop the action to present a montage of vintage photographs overlaid with text explaining the historical context of what's going on - it is, in essence, the movie showing its work in the form of footnotes, purposefully sacrificing narrative momentum in order to lecture us. And as horribly annoying as this is, it's nothing next to the frequent, short flash-forwards to 1948, when Newton's great-grandson Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is on trial for miscegenation, it being argued that since his great-grandmother was Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman, he has enough non-white blood to run afoul of Mississippi's racist laws. These flash-forwards provide not a god-damned thing to the movie, and take quite a lot away: the reveal that Rachel and Newton will become lovers is entirely spoiled, the limited momentum that the film is able to build up is crushed by the rather strained decisions about where in the narrative these flash-forwards should happen, and the symbolic link Ross is clearly trying to draw between different eras of institutional racism in the United States feels so cloying that the film can't do anything but trivialise the very awful reality of anti-miscegenation laws. It's terrible - just plain terrible.

Notwithstanding its grinding joylessness as a story, Free State of Jones isn't terribly well-made, either: the editing is much too busy for such a spare, deadly earnest film, frantically jumping from one shot of a character to a virtually identical shot of the same character, subdividing simple moments into three or four beats, and otherwise making a hash of the very straightforward character material. Ross also makes some peculiar choices about where to point his camera: the film has an odd, distracting addiction to close-ups of gun muzzles, and one of the most hushed and serious moments in the film, the lynching of one of the Jones rebels, is completely gutted by the cramped close-up of his face preceding his murder, reducing him to an impersonal mass of sweaty pores.

The film is absolute tedium, crawling through its story with a deadly mix of hyper-elucidation and confounding ellipses; that it is badly-made tedium is just insulting on top of everything. This is an intriguing and important slice of American history, and it is good of Free State of Jones for bringing attention to it; but it would have been much better if it hadn't ground all the humanity out of it in the process.