Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Director: Joe Roth
Screenwriters: Richard Price
Starring: Julianne Moore, Samuel L. Jackson, Edie Falco
Freedomland “You say black; black like lighter than him, darker than him…” Freedomland seemingly has a lot on its mind, but Joe Roth’s first foray into the land of the Serious Message Drama is less of a story or a movie than a string of facile free-form ruminations. The film is adapted by Richard Price from his novel, and the impressive array of unassuming genre films in Price’s filmography (Ransom, Shaft, Kiss of Death) may begin to shed some light on what happened to Freedomland. It has all the superficial trappings of something Price might have written a few years ago, but his higher ambitions pull the other way and send the screenplay scuttling in a half dozen different directions.
Julianne Moore’s performance is the most interesting aspect of the film, but her character is a liability. Moore has played more than her share of inextricably grief-stricken women in her day — Far From Heaven, Magnolia and The Hours come to mind — but this is something new: she is not merely miserable, she is also petulant and unlikable. There are few things more likely to generate sympathy than a mother who has lost her child, but Moore refuses to play Brenda Martin in the obvious way: she is shrill, defensive, hysterical. Something is off; we can’t bring ourselves to like her.
It’s a brilliant turn, because something is indeed off: Freedomland makes no bones about the fact that all is not as it seems, though I like how the characters draw this conclusion even before we can. But at the same time, the Brenda Martin largely derails the film in the last act. The plot forces a slew of revelations to come in an extended tearful confession — a scene that contains the entire actual plot of the film as well as the entire Brenda character: all of her motivations, all of her emotions, all of her fears come flying at us in an extended stretch of straight-up exposition.
This serves to fundamentally disengage the audience: by that point, we had spent some 90 minutes watching these characters, figuring them out, forming our impressions. Then, in a 10-minute narrative coup d’etat, the movie yanks the rug out from under our feet by brute screenwriting force. Vaguely irritated, we now wait for the movie to put up or shut up, but it can’t: the characters have ceased to exist as people and the plot has become the writer’s arbitrary whim rather than a living story.
Once the mystery drains from Freedomland, it becomes turgid, unfocused, awkward. There’s a lot to wrap up but I was indifferent to most of it, and the film never again convinced me that these characters were real, or that they mattered. It began as a moody, dark thriller and made an abrupt about-face to become a message movie, but at that point there was nothing in its dramatic arsenal. The last thirty minutes are one long hollow thud.
Roth contributes considerably to the film’s downfall. Freedomland has ambitions of emulating Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, at least thematically, but Roth only knows what he’s seen as president of Revolution Studios and director of such films as America’s Sweethearts and Christmas with the Kranks, and so tough scenes like crashes between riot police and residents of a Jersey ghetto become silly, sanitized affairs, with lots of slow motion and a bombastic soundtrack. This stuff needed a raw immediacy to work in this context, and Roth just gets it wrong.
Something tells me this worked better on the page — after all, the tolerance level for lengthy expository confessions is generally higher when they come at the end of novels. The screenplay, by contrast, bites off more than it can chew and has trouble melding its competing sensibilities. It’s a prototypical would-be Oscar movie being released in February, and that should tell you a fair bit.