| February 16, 2006

FREEDOMLAND. The title sounds heroic. And important. The word, “freedomland,” rings out like a declaration. And a promise. With maybe a hint of irony. Unfortunately, the title is the best thing about this movie.
If you’ve seen the previews — hell, if you’ve read imdb or any review of the film — you pretty much know that the film is less interested in what has happened to Brenda’s four-year-old son than a confrontation between a poor black neighborhood and a predominantly white (and affluent) police force. The intention seems to be an important examination of race issues that ultimately becomes only self-important.
While Dan Futterman has proven that an actor can write one kick-ass screenplay (CAPOTE), the same cannot be said for Richard Price, who after years in the film business wrote a novel that became the source he himself adapted into what this film considers a script. While in one way the story has as many plotlines as the far superior CRASH (and even if you didn’t like CRASH, you’d be hard pressed not to consider it better than FREEDOMLAND), Price takes a much more conventional subplot approach that manages to become both too sprawling to allow identification with characters we should care about and too simplistic to make them human enough for us to care.
Joe Roth — with a longer producing resume than directing one, but neither particularly praiseworthy — does no one any favors here, and unfortunately continues to prove that his best work, well, hasn’t happened yet. He’s always drawn to provocative and potentially interesting material, but whether in the director’s chair or in the producing office, regularly seems to miss the point.
Julianne Moore and Samuel L. Jackson are two of our very best actors and they’re making a valiant effort in FREEDOMLAND, but unfortunately neither has a character that makes sense. I feel sorry for Moore who gives her all to the role but will get no recognition for it because the character is so hysterical and belligerent that you just want to slap her. Jackson doesn’t fare much better because his police officer Lorenzo goes from being completely inept in the initial interview with Brenda to being so concerned with turf issues that he makes a series of ill-advised decisions that cloud the investigation. We’re meant to believe that this is all due to the extreme circumstances with their accompanying adrenaline-pumping emotions running high, but I swear, if Lorenzo pulled out his empty inhaler one more time in this film, I was going to walk out. Because the fact that he can’t breathe at important moments narratively says nothing about him as a character but rather is a ploy to delay important expositions in a misguided effort to “create suspense.” Do you feel the suspense? No, you want to take the inhaler away from him and shove it down his throat.
The only character and actor who comes off well is Edie Falco’s mother whose son went missing ten years prior and who has since dedicated her life to finding other women’s missing children. The role and performance are tough as nails and yet nuanced, creating a memorable presence in the film. When she’s on the screen, you can’t help but get drawn in. And her pivotal scene with Moore in the woods of an abandoned children’s institution is the finest moment between two characters in this film. Unfortunately, all of the other characters fall by the wayside or seem peripheral despite set ups that imply they’re important narratively, people like Brenda’s cop brother or the guy who ultimately did have something to do with the boy’s disappearance.
Because, yes, despite the fact that when I first saw the trailer, I thought, “there’s no kid,” and figured that that would be the twist, Brenda indeed does have a child, and he is indeed missing. So there are no FLIGHTPLAN or THE FORGOTTEN moments of questioning whether anything we’re seeing is real or not. And the film does hold true to the common wisdom of missing children, so rather than being the exception, it’s actually the illustration of that point. Kind of a bold choice.
But FREEDOMLAND ends up being a better concept than story. Even the long abandoned institution where ultimately they go in anticipation of finding the child (or more likely the child’s body) ends up being only a small bump in the narrative rather than a central overriding presence that its use as a title implies. In other words, all concept, no follow-through.
Because FREEDOMLAND isn’t free, don’t waste your money on this film. It’s not even worth the price of a rental.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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