Matthew McConaughey in a scene from Free State of Jones.

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.

Free State of Jones is based on a true story, and director Gary Ross definitely shows 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.

However, the film stumbles a bit when it tries to do a little too much: There are courtroom scenes taking place 85 years after the Civil War, when a relative of Knight’s 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 merely 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. Still, it’s worth seeing for McConaughey and Ali.

Free State of Jones is playing at theaters across the valley.