Freedomland (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Freedomland is one of an increasingly endangered species: the adult movie that's about something. By "something," I mean a serious issue - the kind of thing films shy away from for fear of alienating viewers. Underneath the trappings of a police procedural, Freedomland opens a gateway to the simmering cauldron of racial/social inequality that exists across the urban landscape of this country, where people are treated differently because of the color of their skin or their lack of spending clout. Events in the movie are as fictional as the locale in which they transpire (Dempsey, NJ), but they bear an uncanny resemblance to recent news stories. It's unclear whether writer Richard Price drew from the headlines in drafting his story, or whether Freedomland shows prescience.

Freedomland is the second of three novels written by Price to be set in Dempsey (the others are Clockers, which Spike Lee turned into a movie, and Samaritan, which has not yet been adapted). By working on his own screenplay, Price is able to highlight the elements of the novel which he feels are the most important. Freedomland is provocative, but not without flaws. Loose ends abound, and not the kind that give a movie an open ended conclusion. The third act in particular is sloppy. One character who plays a significant role early in the film disappears without explanation. There are also pacing inconsistencies. Parts of the picture move with maddening slowness; other scenes seem rushed.

It's early May 1999 when a woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), stumbles into a hospital emergency room with badly lacerated palms. She claims to have been the victim of a carjacking near the local housing projects. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is called in and, while interviewing Brenda, he discovers that her four-year old son was in the car at the time it was stolen. The police force is mobilized and the search centers around the projects where the criminal/kidnapper presumably lives (he is described as being a young black male). The high rise complex is barricaded, and tensions between the mostly white police force and the mostly black residents escalate. Council is concerned that a powder keg exists and the blue touch paper is close to being lit. So he pushes full force into the investigation, hoping to make an arrest before the situation explodes. His work is hampered by Brenda's hotheaded brother, Danny (Ron Eldard), a member of a nearby police force. He's out for blood, and doesn't much care about whose rights get trampled in the process. The deeper Council looks, the more convinced he becomes that Brenda is lying.

The film's handling of racial tension reminded me of how Spike Lee approached something similar in Do the Right Thing. A clash is not inevitable, but too few people are doing what's necessary to head it off. Sometimes, it seems that Council is a lone wolf. And the complaint of a resident rings true. Every year, black people are murdered in the projects, and the cops pay little attention. But when one white child is missing, the entire police force is called out. The way Price and director Joe Roth present the dark side of modern-day race relations in America is in stark contrast to the preachy approach embraced by Lars Von Trier in Manderlay, which ostensibly wants to make similar points.

The thing that makes Freedomland riveting is the way in which its tale of human tragedy unfolds. Although it begins by looking like a big screen episode of CSI, it develops into something more sublime and disturbing. This isn't a mystery in the conventional sense, but it's about secrets hidden and revealed, and the corrosive power of guilt. Even as Council probes into the dark recesses of Brenda's psyche, he seeks to exorcise his own demons. The two form an unlikely connection, the nature of which cannot be revealed without spoiling the ending. But don't expect any last-minute twists or turns. The movie doesn't employ sensationalist tactics to enhance its potency.

Strong acting is one of the film's hallmarks. It has been a while since Samuel L. Jackson has given a performance with this much intensity. In many of his recent roles, Jackson has settled into a comfortable place and relied on his reputation. Here, he takes risks. Council is flawed yet heroic and, most importantly, not superhuman. Julianne Moore, who is again playing a mother who has lost a child, is one of those actresses who can obtain maximum impact from grief. She looks worn and drained, and she plays her part with honesty and openness. The human elements of Freedomland succeed in large part because of the work done by the leads. The effectiveness of the supporting cast is a further boost.

My sense is that Freedomland is being mis-marketed. Trailers and TV ads lead viewers to expect a thriller, not a hard-edged drama that touches on divisive issues. It's hard to say whether Freedomland is optimistic or downbeat. Deep currents of cynicism run through the storyline, but there are flashes of hope near the end. That's the way things are in real life. Sometimes, it seems that this country has made great advances since the Civil Rights movement of the '60s and '70s. Other times, such as during the Los Angeles riots and various other, smaller flare-ups, that seems not to be the case. Freedomland provides a stark reminder of this with a fiction that is disturbingly close to fact.

Freedomland (United States, 2006)

Director: Joe Roth
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe
Screenplay: Richard Price, based on his novel
Cinematography: Anastas N. Michos
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1