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Can 'Free State of Jones' find a summer audience?

The historical drama is for the most part very different from its current competitors such as the Pixar animated movie 'Finding Dory' and the disaster film 'Independence Day: Resurgence.' Will the fact that it stands out from the crowd help or hurt it?

Murray Close/STX Productions/AP
'Free State of Jones' stars Mahershala Ali (l.) and Matthew McConaughey (r.).

The film “Free State of Jones,” a historical drama that stars Matthew McConaughey and tells the true story of a Confederate soldier who led a group of fighters against the South, comes to movie theaters on Friday. Will it find an audience among the summer blockbusters?

The film also stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, and Mahershala Ali.

The movie will be going up against such recent box office winners as the Pixar animated film “Finding Dory” and the comedy “Central Intelligence” as well as the disaster movie “Independence Day: Resurgence” and the thriller “The Shallows,” both of which also open this weekend.

Compared to the large-scale destruction of, for example, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” a Civil War historical drama could look somewhat staid. How often do studios release these kinds of movies in wide release (rather than limited) during the summer? 

It can work. The Revolutionary War film “The Patriot,” for example, became a box office hit after being released in June 2000, finding an audience against movies such as “The Perfect Storm” and the animated movie “Chicken Run.” Similarly, movies like the 2011 film “The Help,” a 1960s-set story, and the 2013 Lee Daniels film "The Butler,” about a White House butler serving through the decades, became hits, though “Help” had the fan base of a massive bestseller behind it and “Butler” had the attraction of a star-studded cast. 

Industry observers are predicting “Jones” may have a tough time of it, however, possibly because of poor reviews so far. “The treatment is pious and stiff-jointed enough to leave you wondering what a two-hour-and-19-minute drama that never begins to attain the moral urgency and fascination of something like ‘Glory’ or ‘12 Years a Slave’ is doing being released in the middle of the summer,” Variety writer Owen Gleiberman writes of "Jones." “Box-office prospects don’t exactly look rousing, since the film itself simply isn’t rousing enough.” 

Meriah Doty of The Wrap agrees, writing, " 'The Free State of Jones' may not even make this weekend’s top five [at the box office].... Reviews are still rolling in on the film ... but its current Rotten Tomatoes score is an abysmal 0 percent.” 

As of press time, the Rotten Tomatoes score is 15 percent, but that’s still the lowest of movies opening this weekend, which include “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “The Shallows,” and “Swiss Army Man.”

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