Director: Joe Roth
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe, Aunjanue Ellis
MPAA Rating: (for language and some violent content)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 2/17/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
A simple drama overwhelmed with far too much ambition, Freedomland manages to overlook the central core of its story and does a major disservice to its far more complex and interesting undercurrent of racial tension that arises from the central plot arc. The movie wants to do too much with too little and ends up doing too little with too much. The screenplay by Richard Price from his novel is like a thematic juggling act, throwing all of its balls in the air. The movie doesn’t necessarily drop them all by the end, but ultimately only one is caught. The rest just sort of mysteriously disappear. Not helping matters is director Joe Roth, working at an elevated height of pretense in just about every scene, making sure that we know the material presented here is Important Stuff. There's very little subtlety to the proceedings; everything is amped—from the actors to the soundtrack. On a basic level, though, the movie does tell an involving story, and Price and Roth's intentions are clearly sincere. Unfortunately, the movie lacks a much-need focus, and its execution is heavy-handed to the extent of undermining those intentions with simplistic artifice.
Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) works the housing projects in a New Jersey city. One night, he's sent to pick up one of the residents on an outstanding warrant but ignores it, realizing intrinsically that it's a trumped up case of Driving While Black. Meanwhile, further down the road, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) walks into the local medical center, her hands bloody. Council is called in to question her, and she tells him an African-American man stole her car, pushing her into glass on the ground. She is reluctant in answering some questions, so Council pushes her. Eventually, she comes around to saying that her four-year-old son was sleeping in the back seat during the carjacking. Word gets out, and Brenda's brother Danny (Ron Eldard), a cop in the neighboring town of Gannon, comes around, thinking Council isn't doing enough to find his nephew. Council takes her back to the scene, and the police have put the projects on lockdown, slowly raising the tension within the community to a head. Council doesn't think she's telling the full story. When Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), the leader of a community group that specializes in finding lost children, offers him her group's aid, he's dismissive at first but soon realizes it might help Brenda come around to tell the truth.
With all of these narratives and characters intersecting throughout the course of Lorenzo's investigation, the movie holds a lot of potential in bringing each different experience surrounding the child's disappearance to light. Roth focuses almost entirely on the investigation itself, though, so the added layers end up a distraction. Everything is played at its simplest, most basic level with intensity tacked on in an attempt to make it seem more effective and affective than it actually is. Take the first interrogation scene for example. Once he realizes her son is missing, Council has Brenda closed off in a room in the hospital, trying to get as many details out of her as possible. The actors are playing for effect only, the soundtrack is pumped to eleven, and, all the while Council is questioning her, he's trying to get his inhaler to work. The rest of the movie is pretty much like that, taking on more than it can handle or even needs to in the first place. The inhaler as unnecessary business is forgivable—superfluous, yes, but forgivable. Later, a full-out riot eventually breaks out, and that event feels just like the inhaler, though far less forgivable.
For all its straining, the movie is one of anticlimaxes. The revelation of the fate of Brenda's son is held back and drawn out for so long in the final act that, when it does come along, the disclosure has no impact. The final scene of her story with Council takes a turn completely out of left field and just leaves a gaping emotional hole in its wake. Julianne Moore also turns out her most unsympathetic and emotionally astray performance to date, which is a major shame. The Edie Falco character, who lost her own son ten years ago and now tries to help bring the closure to other families that she never had, seems slightly out of place, simply because Falco's work is so subdued. Her character, made tragic by Falco's performance, unfortunately serves only as a plot device, and once she's fulfilled her necessary function, she disappears. Brenda's brother suffers a similar fate, going on television to plead with the kidnapper and vanishing immediately afterwards without as much as a mention. Then there's the aforementioned riot, which serves to conclude the tension arising from the lockdown, but the problem is there's no tension built up in the first place. The scene is played out against sanctimonious, maudlin choral music that simply underplays the potential dramatic force of such a scene.
Ultimately, there's very little to no payoff to any of movie's narrative and character strands. Freedomland's potential is painfully apparent, but Roth is not the right man to bring it out. The idea of how a hunt for a nondescript black man would affect a community full of ordinary African-American males is fascinating in and of itself, but that story will just have to be left for someone else to explore.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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