A film review by Craig J. Koban

FREEDOMLAND j
½ 

2006, PG-13, 85 mins.

Lorenzo: Samuel L. Jackson / Brenda: Julianne Moore / Karen: Edie Falco / Danny: Ron Eldard / Boyle: William Forsythe / Felicia: Aunjanue Ellis / Billy: Anthony Mackie 

Directed by Joe Roth /  Written by Richard Price, based on his novel

FREEDOMLAND is yet another prosaic and monotonously dull thriller in the tradition of a film containing what I like to call a PWP – or premise without payoff.  The film is has a good footing for establishing the basic nuts and bolts of it story, but it later descends into far too many disparaging tangents – both thematically and narratively – to be finally taken as a work of successful substance.  The film is a conglomerate of too many ideas all battling it out for supremacy as the dominant theme.  Great, provocative thrillers are able to involve and tantalize audiences with skill and tact.  FREEDOMLAND is an unfortunate exception.  Despite its painfully obvious attempts to be a nail-biting film of social relevance in terms of commenting on race relations, it's so cobbled together and tacked on to the overall story that you find yourself ultimately not caring.  

This is all, when all is said and done, a shame.  FREEDOMLAND was written by Richard Price, based on his own novel.  Price’s other book, CLOCKERS, was made into a very effective film by Spike Lee.  FREEDOMLAND is hardly the film of Lee’s caliber, nor is it even remotely as provocative and invigorating a work.  FREEDOMLAND – as a whole – is a thriller that just feels too pretentious and overwrought to be taken critically and seriously the more one lingers with it.  While trying to be a stirring and mysterious who-dunnit about a young New Jersey child that has mysteriously disappeared (that premise alone could have been expertly crafted into a film), the film also tries to meditate on child endangerment, racial antagonism and bigotry, corrupt and dirty cops, mob violence, and mental illness.  There is simply too much here to be conglomerated smoothly into one dedicated mixture.  FREEDOMLAND, bad metaphors aside, is like a cup of coffee that is made far too strong for its own good.

It’s also a shame the film does not ultimately work because of the talent involved.  Much like in 2004’s THE FORGOTTEN, Julianne Moore stars as a victim that desperately tries to get to the bottom of the case behind her missing son.  We also have Samuel L. Jackson appear as an obligatorical, tough-as-nails police investigator that the actor can play with competent charisma in his sleep.  The performances by Jackson and Moore are so good that they almost appear to belong in another, better crafted film.  I found myself responding more to their spirited and vigorous performances than the story they populated.  Moore’s performance alone is so excruciatingly strong and vile as the mentally traumatized mother figure that it, ironically, kind of overwhelms the narrative thrust of the story. 

Moore plays Brenda as a mother that seems so maltreated by life that she comes across as both insane and pathological, perhaps a bit too much for us to inspire any real sympathy in her.  I think the key for an audiences’ buy-in for a character like her is in our willingness to understand and sympathize with her.  As she appears in the opening moments of the film, she is alone, sobbing uncontrollably, with her hands bleeding profusely.  She manages to stagger herself into a hospital to get help of some kind.  Her story seems to be as wild as she appears.  She tells hospital authorities that a black man has hijacked her car in an area of a low-income housing development in New Jersey.  When Detective Lorenzo (isn’t every other detective in movies named Lorenzo?) arrives he finds this woman odd, to say the least.  He does not appear to feel very much for her, as does the audience, nor does he trust her completely.  She is such a whack job that – dang it – it’s hard to take her story credibly.  After all, why was she driving at night with her son in a secluded area? 

After much pleading with her, she finally reveals that not only was her car taken, but that her young son was in the car at the time.  Lorenzo calls in his people and the manhunt is on.  Unfortunately for all concerned, the story soon becomes public and with terrible repercussions.  Why such a harsh public reaction?  Maybe because the largely black neighborhood can’t seem to fathom why the mostly white police force would mobilize so quickly for the sake of a small white child.  One black preacher in the neighborhood screams at the police at one point that they failed to look at all of the homicides of black kids in the area, but when a white child goes missing, they soon come in full force.  To make matters worse, Brenda’s brother Danny (played effectively by Ron Eldard) seems to be a malicious, black hating SOB of the force. 

The police, going on the story of Brenda, centers on the projects where the apparent kidnapper lives, much to the personal dismay of the residents there.  As soon police barricades go up tensions between the black community and the office rise astronomically.  Lorenzo, of course, is black himself and he becomes acutely aware of how tensions like this could escalate into something potentially fatal.  He soon decides to jump start his own personal investigation and hopes to unravel the truth behind Brenda’s abductor before tensions rise to the point of being uncontrollable. 

Lorenzo’s efforts hit some serious roadblocks along the way.  Brenda’s brother alone is like a fuse just waiting to be set ablaze.  He’s a dirty cop who does not feel apologetic if anyone’s rights gets in the way of finding the perpetrator of his nephew’s disappearance.  Perhaps the largest obstacle for Lorenzo to overcome is Brenda herself.  She is a woman of such impenetrable logic that he seems to have no way for convincing her to open up thoroughly about specific details of the incident that could greatly assist his investigation.  Brenda is so unfathomably deranged and frantic that Lorenzo soon begins to realize that there are things this lunatic is not telling him.  Clearly, she is lying about the real truth of her child’s disappearance…or is she?

FREEDOMLAND is a thriller of such limitless potential that I soon grew increasingly disillusioned and dazed by just how far wrong it goes.  The essential premise has intrigue and could have made into an effective, stylish, and absorbing police procedural.  The elements of the film’s plot that concerns discovering the truth about Brenda’s child are the better parts of the film.  Yet, as the story unfolds you are left shaking your head far too many times. 

For example, why would the hospital let Brenda go so freely in the opening moments when she appears to have been in such need on medical help, both of a physical and mental variety?  Also, why would Lorenzo allow this fanatical person that is clearly a few fries short of a Happy Meal to accompany him on his investigation?  What possible could this potentially schizophrenic woman have to offer?  Would Lorenzo not have a better chance with his investigation if he flew solo?  And moreover, why does he exude such personal patience and sympathy for this woman?  She obviously is not telling him everything, so it’s kind of odd how he continues to confide in her.  There are  many times when I wanted to slap Lorenzo upside the head and plead with him to stop being so passive with this woman.

Moore’s show-stopping and brilliant performance is so calculating and chilling that it almost could have been utilized more appropriately in a different film.  Consider: when we are introduced to her she is so relatively out of it that we instantly smell something rotten about her and her story.  As the plot progresses and her behaviour becomes more erratic and impulsive, our distrust in her grows feverously.  Her role could have been better handled if she played a victim that was more emotionally grounded.  If she did just that then our innate distrust in her would have been nullified to the point where we would not have too many suspicions of her.  Instead, it becomes so obvious that she is lying about something that it all but subverts the tension in the story.  The film’s final third act, as a result, is so woefully anti-climatic, so much so that you have to kind of speculate why Jackson went so far with this women when the truth about the child was so inescapable.

The whole subplot of racial tension in the film completely lacks credence.  FREEDOMLAND desperately tries to be about something more than it is.  There is no real motivation for the black residents to be so utterly hostile.  Brenda apparently is such a beloved member of the community (she does volunteer work with the children there) that their overly harsh reaction to the police efforts seems artificial.  If they cared for this woman, would they not welcome an investigative effort?  The film tries hard – far too hard – to be a compelling look at modern race relations.  If you want a completely stirring work with these themes that are explored thoughtfully and significantly, then just look at last year’s CRASH.  FREEDOMLAND, by comparison, feels excruciatingly artificial.

And…another thing…why would Lorenzo and a large and diverse group of people search for the child at Freedomland (an abandoned orphanage) when it’s so clear to Lorenzo that Brenda is insincere to everyone?  It simply makes no sense.  This occurs at a point in the film where Brenda comes across as so insincere that why anyone would go along with her false leads seems incredible.  There is one great scene in the film between Brenda and one of the group leaders, Karen (played in the film’s best performance by Edie Falco).  Karen is a mother who leads a group of other mothers to help people find their missing children.  She is played in a performance by Falco of such calm, but striking conviction.  She seems to be the only person in the movie to sit Brenda down and peacefully and simply ask her, for crying out loud, ”Did you kill you’re son?”

Other elements in the film seem misused.  Brenda’s brother is established as such a foul and rotten antagonist and then he completely disappears from the film, without a trace.  You are left wondering why he was there in the first place.  Jackson’s character himself is also established with having a history of crime in the form of his son, who is a convicted criminal and is in prison.  This aspect of his character never seems to manifest itself into the larger realm of the story until nearly the end.  As for his investigative skills,  Lorenzo is either much too patient and caring for the hapless Brenda, or is either too inept or blindsided to see through her obsessive façade and understand that there is more to her case than she is letting on.  Of course, he discovers the truth in a scene between both of them, which has Brenda rambling incoherently for what seems like an eternity.  She takes several minutes and endless lines of inane dialogue to explain the truth whereas a few simple words and a few mere seconds could have done the same.

FREEDOMLAND emerges as a real wasted effort for all of the participants involved.  This would-be powerful urban drama wants to marry the sensibilities of a thrilling police manhunt story with that of a sprawling and pertinent tale of racial strife and tension.  The film tries to be a persuasive and forceful hot button work but instead gets so consumed by its unrelated parts that it never becomes anything cohesive and powerful.  There are just too many needless threads in FREEDOMLAND to make for a drama that we can invest in with conviction.  The film was directed by Joe Roth, which maybe one of the film's biggest problems (his past credits include CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS and REVENGE OF THE NERDS 2: NERDS IN PARADISE).  His lack of command of the material breathes through every minute of the film.  He allows Moore to carelessly portray such a hysterically unsympathetic persona to the point where we never feel for her (we never buy her story from her first scene).  He also allows the film to careen out of control to the point where it sacrifices a tense, taut, and slick story for stagy and preachy scenes that have no credibility.  As a result, FREEDOMLAND is a work that suffocates under the weight of its own ostentatious self-importance. 

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