Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate army medic, decides he’s had enough, and deserts. He returns to Mississippi where his people are being harassed by looting soldiers. He winds up in the swamps with escaped slaves where they form a pact, and eventually create a militia to rebel against the Confederacy.
Based on a true story, director Gary Ross definitely delivers on the brutality and terrors of the Civil War. McConaughey is powerful in the central role, as is Mahershala Ali as Moses, leader of the escaped slaves. The film stumbles a bit in trying to do a little too much. There are courtroom scenes 85 years in the Civil War’s future where a relative of Knight is in a civil rights dispute. These scenes feel completely out of place, and they sort of muck up the film’s ending (things just come to an awkward stop). It’s too bad, because the movie winds up being good instead of great.
The battle scenes are harrowing, the tensions are frightening and real, and there’s not a bad performance in the lot. Yet, because Ross has overstuffed the film, aspects like the rise of the KKK are almost glossed over.
This project, with its dual storylines and many plot points, probably would’ve worked better as an extended series on HBO rather than a single big budget movie. Still, it’s worth seeing for McConaughey and Ali.