Samuel L. Jackson as Lorenzo Council
Julianne Moore as Brenda Martin
Edie Falco as Karen Collucci
Ron Eldard as Danny Martin
Directed by Joe Roth
Despite the many strong moments in this powerful drama, it sometimes loses its way, quite tragically, due to a rare scenery-chewing performance from Julianne Moore.
Plain clothes detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place when Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) arrives at a New Jersey emergency room claiming that a black man stole her car with her four-year-old son in the backseat. As tempers flare at the nearby projects, Lorenzo needs to find out what really happened before the racial tensions in the mainly black area threaten to ignite into a riot.
If the path to quality filmmaking were paved in good intentions, than this drama, adapted by Richard Price from his own novel, should still have been a much better film. It’s not to say that the results of Price’s second collaboration with director Joe Roth is awful, but its attempt at creating a racially-charged film that could have been as powerful as “Crash” loses its way enough times that it never quite makes it to its destination.
The set-up and pacing for the story is from the same mold as Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” first introducing Jackson’s Lorenzo, a plain-clothes detective, who works out of the Dempsey projects. He has a good relationship with the community because of his efforts to keep cops from other jurisdictions out of there, but it’s a tension-filled environment where one wrong word might cause the place to explode. It finally comes in the form of Brenda Martin, a single mother who works at the projects’ day care center, who claims that she was carjacked by a black man, while her sleeping four-year-old son was in the backseat. As accusations begin to fly, the police chief decide to lock the place down, and tempers begin to flare with Lorenzo caught in the middle.
At its best, “Freedomland” is the type of powerful message-driven film we used to see from Spike Lee back in his heyday. Price’s story has a lot of resonance with what is going on in the world today, not only from the Susan Smith case on which this was obviously based, but also due to all the stories of neglectful and abusive parents we keep hearing about.
This is the third or fourth time that Moore plays a mother who has lost her child, but this is by no means her most likeable or sympathetic role. She spends the entire movie either crying or acting crazy, and watching this woman who clearly has problems agonizing over the disappearance of her child makes it even harder to empathize with her. The problem is that as soon as Moore’s distraught mother arrives on the scene, it’s hard not to presume she’s responsible for her own son’s disappearance or death, especially because we’re all too familiar with similar Susan Smith stories.
Jackson comes across better in the movie, since Lorenzo is a far better developed character, and one that allows Jackson to show off his considerable dramatic prowess without veering too far away from the type of character we’re used to seeing him play. Yes, he even gets to tell someone to “kiss his black ass,” which must be in his contract at this point. That said, Lorenzo isn’t actually a very good detective, because when he’s not badgering the poor victimized mother, he’s tampering with crime scenes.
Fortunately, Edie Falco shows up halfway through the movie as the leader of a group of mothers who work with the police to try to find missing children. Falco’s very presence raises the story to another plateau, because her performance is the polar opposite of Moore’s. Instead of going all out with the hysterics, she keeps her emotions contained, and releases it in a memorable monologue that would probably have gotten her an Oscar nomination if this film were released last year. While it’s always nice to see the up ‘n’ coming actor Anthony Mackie, his role is far too small compared to the weaker Ron Eldard, who is poorly miscast as Moore’s conflicted police officer brother.
While the strongest emotional points in the film usually include Jackson and Moore, even they start to get tiring, maybe because you never know what to think of their relationship. When we finally learn the truth about what happened to Brenda’s son–it’s not at all what you might expect–it comes in the form of a maniacal rant from Moore that seems to go on forever. It’s quite grueling to watch, and it’s obvious that Moore’s performance should have been reigned in by director Joe Roth, because that scene could have been one or two minutes shorter and still been too long. After we learn the truth, the story culminates into a battle between the police and the residents of the projects. It certainly adds some much needed excitement to the ending, but it almost seems superfluous at that point.
At times, it seems like Roth is out of his depth, maybe because we’re used to seeing him direct sillier comedies, but two factors keep the film from completely spiraling out of control: Price’s strong story, well-developed characters and believable dialogue carry the film through the slower moments, and James Newton Howard’s terrific soundtrack–possibly one of his best to date–greatly embellishes the film’s more powerful scenes.
The Bottom Line:
There’s a good deal of merit to what Price and Roth were trying to accomplish with this dramatic story ripped from today’s headlines, but sadly, the few times it falters is usually because Julianne Moore’s performance makes her character the weak link in her own movie.