There’s nothing more disappointing than when someone makes a promise to you and then fails to keep it. That’s also what makes movies disappointing as well.
Watch the trailer for the “Free State of Jones” and it looks like it’s a movie about a man fighting to establish a free state in the middle of the south during the American Civil War. The trailer promises fighting, yet all the fighting you see in the trailer is pretty much all what you see in the entire movie.
Instead of being about one man fighting to establish a free state, the movie is actually less of a story and more of a documentary about the actual man’s life. Even more confusing is that the initial story of one man fighting to establish a free state in the South during the Civil War is interspersed with a flash forward to the 1950s when the hero’s relation is in trouble with the Mississippi law for not being pure white. This part of the story doesn’t appear anywhere in the trailer, so it’s unexpected and distracting when the trailer promises lots of fighting.
Besides not delivering on its promise of fighting, “Free State of Jones” suffers from discontinuous scenes. Watch “Star Wars” and the story smoothly progresses from one moment to another. In “Free State of Jones,” the story jumps ahead a few months then another few years until it finally jumps way ahead to the 1950s.
Such disjointed story telling prevents the audience from feeling emotionally connected to the main characters. Instead, the movie feels more like a documentary showing us highlights from the hero’s actual life and then jumping to another scene later on with no continuity in between.
You can’t tell an interesting story without getting the audience emotionally invested in the hero, and audiences can’t care about a hero if scenes keep jumping around from one time period to another.
In one scene in “Free State of Jones,” there’s a short battle scene between the hero’s forces and the Confederate forces. The scene starts with both sides fighting, then concludes with the hero’s side bringing in a cannon and routing the Confederate forces.
That scene should be exciting, but we know nothing leading up to the battle scene, we don’t know what’s at stake, there’s no sense of tension as the hero struggles to defeat the enemy, and there’s no villain in the battle scene that the hero can fight against. Instead, the hero and his friends are simply fighting a generic foe and the entire battle starts and ends so quickly that it’s impossible to care about the outcome. The entire scene seems to exist solely to show a historical battle and that’s it.
Scenes in “Free State of Jones” simply start and end suddenly, then jump to another scene with no sense of drama whatsoever. Imagine if “Star Wars” showed the scene where Luke decides to go with Obi-wan. Then the next scene shows them flying in the Millennium Falcon, completely skipping over how they got there. Then imagine another scene showing them inside the Death Star without showing how they got caught and how they hid and later overpowered the stormtroopers.
By failing to provide interesting connecting scenes, “Free State of Jones” doesn’t tell a story so much as it simply parades a series of scenes that should be interesting, but really aren’t because we’re thrown into those scenes suddenly and dumped out of them just as suddenly.
“Free State of Jones” is an example of following historical facts so rigidly that it fails to tell a unified and compelling story. Remember, facts don’t matter as much as telling a story with tension, suspense, and conflict. In “Free State of Jones,” there are multiple villains but they appear briefly before getting defeated so there’s no sense of impending doom.
In “Star Wars,” the final scene makes us wonder if Luke will blow up the Death Star before the Death Star can blow up the rebel base. In “Free State of Jones,” there’s no similar final scene that makes us want to know how it turns out. “Free State of Jones” is more like reading a history book devoid of any story telling techniques whatsoever.
You don’t want to write a screenplay that simply bounces from one scene to another. You want to write a screenplay that connects interesting scenes with equally interesting scenes.
Think of “Pulp Fiction” where two hit men are on their way to retrieve a briefcase from an apartment. The scene where the two hit men are driving is interesting in itself, and then there’s suspense when the two hit men arm themselves and head towards the apartment. That creates suspense because we want to know what happens.
If “Pulp Fiction” was reshaped like “Free State of Jones,” this is how that series of scenes would play out.
Two hit men would suddenly burst into an apartment. We would neither know who these guys are, nor care or understand what’s going on. Then the two hit men would shoot everyone in the apartment and leave. That’s it.
Can you see how dull and confusing this would be? That’s the problem with “Free State of Jones.” It’s an interesting idea that’s simply poorly executed and poorly told. One look at the choppy nature of the screenplay should have told the producers that the film would be a disappointment that no amount of star power, special effects, or action could hide.