Related Articles: Movies, All

Freedomland

Linear, Predictable Storytelling

The tagline for Freedomland, a supposedly "gritty" urban crime drama/psychological thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore in the lead roles, promises that "The Truth is Hiding Where No One Dares to Look." Alas, Freedomland doesn't live up to the hype or the promise. Far from it, in fact.

Written by novelist/screenwriter Richard Price (Ransom, Clockers, Night and the City) and helmed by longtime producer-turned-director Joe Roth, Freedomland superficially explores race, class, and gender issues through the prism of a carjacking/kidnapping in a racially segregated area and the repercussions that follow (all of them predictable, especially to anyone familiar with the Susan Smith saga of a few years back).

Set in the fictional city of Dempsey, New Jersey (actually Yonkers, New York), and in the near-past (1999), Freedomland opens on a lone woman, Brenda Martin (Moore), walking dazed through low-income, predominantly African-American, housing projects. She wanders through the neighborhood until she finds and walks into the local hospital. There, hands bloodied, she receives immediate medical treatment. Suspecting a crime, the hospital calls in the Dempsey police. Lorenzo Council (Jackson), an African-American detective closely involved with the residents of the housing projects -- as his name indicates, Council servers as the neighborhood's informal mediator, counselor, and friend -- becomes assigned to the case.

Brenda tells Council that she was carjacked by an African-American male. Carjacking turns to kidnapping, though, when Brenda reveals that her son was asleep in the back seat when the carjacking occurred. Council, however, suspects that Brenda is hiding some or all of the truth. Inevitably Brenda's story leaks to the public. Council's efforts to solve the case are then complicated by police officers from the nearby, affluent (read: white) town of Gannon. The Gannon police officers use a heavy hand to arrest a suspect and with the carjacker presumably still at large, the police chief orders the housing projects locked down. Brenda's brother, Danny Martin (Ron Eldard), also happens to be on the Gannon police force. Racial tensions threaten to break out into violence as the residents of the housing projects and the police square off.

The "Freedomland" of the title is a place, an abandoned state facility for orphaned children, and an old site for psychological testing. As a metaphor, Freedomland suggests that Brenda's revelations will be connected to some childhood trauma (it doesn't). Freedomland serves as a clever psychological tool to create the background for Brenda to fully explain the events surrounding her son's kidnapping. Freedomland is the last stop before the expected confessional scene, where facts or truths are revealed, the real culprits are unmasked and the mystery solved (and, yes, Freedomland goes exactly where you think it's going, even when it suggests otherwise).

Price includes the obligatory face-off interrogation scene as the climax, but it's one of several obvious signposts that Richard Price should have allowed someone else to adapt his novel for the screen. What worked or might have worked on the page (e.g., long, portentous, on-the-nose dialogue scenes), simply doesn't work on screen. Some characters seem to have little purpose in the film, except to provide misdirection or background. Other characters seem part of potentially rewarding subplots that go nowhere (at least on film). Not content with just one wrap-up scene after the climax, Price includes several more scenes, all except one, the resolution of the residents vs. police subplot. One presumably key revelation derails whatever sympathy the audience might have had for a significant character. Instead, it's laughably obtuse and perplexing, leaving viewers scratching their heads at what they might have missed in the lead up to the revelation (the short answer: nothing).

While Samuel L. Jackson gives his typically relaxed, grounded performance (the graying goatee and slight pot belly help give the detective character an easy-going authenticity), with the exception of one or two scenes, Julianne Moore stumbles and stumbles often. Moore, known primarily for playing roles involving a wide range of emotion, overcompensates for the often meandering, unfocused dialogue. To be fair, playing a perpetually traumatized, near hysterical character is a difficult task for any actress, regardless of her talent or her self-restraint. Moore, though, goes into overwrought mode here, especially in the final, overlong scene, where her emotional delivery becomes jagged and affected (it isn't helped by the equally overwrought, overwritten dialogue).

Freedomland ultimately proves the adage (if it isn't one, it should be), that novelists should rarely, if ever, adapt their own novels for the screen. The end result here is nothing short of disappointing and forgettable, but perhaps it'll serve as an object lesson to everyone involved. Then again, maybe not.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars