If you ranked movies solely on ambition, Joe Roth’s Freedomland would get an A. Oh, it’s ambitious. I don’t know when I last saw a movie try to do so much — or get so tangled up and keep tripping over its own feet. It would have helped if screenwriter Richard Price (adapting his own novel) and director Roth had decided what movie they were making before they got started. Is it a mystery? A thriller? A sociological “message” picture?
The answer is yes. The problem is that each aspect of the film keeps getting buried by the others. In the end, the good things about Freedomland — and there are a few — become obscured in the film’s desire to be altogether too much. As a mystery it is both appallingly transparent and maddeningly inconclusive.
When the film opens, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) is seen wandering toward a hospital in a state of something like shock, with blood seeping from her hands. She tells a tale that has her being car-jacked by a completely nondescript black man near a housing project. When Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives on the scene, she throws out one other fact about the car-jacking — that her 4-year-old son was asleep in the back seat. This sets the investigation at a completely new level; among other things, the entire housing project is shut down for the duration of the search to find her son. None too surprisingly — and certainly not without cause — the populace of the project is extremely put out by this turn of events, especially since there has never been this kind of effort put forth in search of a missing black child.
In the meantime, Brenda’s story starts to look specious. There are too many questions she can’t answer satisfactorily — what she was doing there at that time of night, why her child was with her, has Brenda started taking drugs again, etc.? There are no prizes for guessing at the general truth of the story, even though the specifics might not be what they seem.
Yet the film never bothers to unravel a few pretty crucial plot points — not the least of which is what became of her car — when the movie gets to its solution. Of course, Freedomland also never bothers with such pesky questions as how people in the locked-down projects can show up in other locales when it suits the purposes of the plot.
And what of Freedomland, the place the film’s trailer milks for all its creepy worth? In all honesty, it ought to be called Red Herring Land, since the film offers very little more about this abandoned orphan asylum than the trailer does. True, a pivotal revelation takes place there, but the same revelation could as easily have taken place in the backseat of a 1959 Studebaker. In other words, the place is all for atmosphere — an atmosphere that Roth doesn’t know how to maximize.
But the film’s curse is that it thinks it’s better than its mystery plot — which perhaps explains why it goes on nigh on to forever, even after we get to the solution. What’s sad is that the movie could have been better than its mystery, but Freedomland is rarely convincing in its ham-handedness.
Samuel L. Jackson comes close to holding the movie together as the asthmatic, world-weary detective, but he can only do so much — especially up against Julianne Moore’s overstated performance. To say that the usually reliable Moore chews the scenery here does her performance a disservice. She not only chews it, she gnaws all the way through the plaster lathe and out the other side. Her performance consists of two notes: a nearly catatonic lethargy and a raving hysteria of a kind that makes the naked heroine from Dovzhenko’s Earth throwing herself around the room look like a model of decorous behavior. I kept expecting someone to look at her and quote Austin Pendleton’s line from What’s Up, Doc?: “Who is that dangerously unbalanced woman?”
Perhaps Moore needed more direction than dilettante director Joe Roth could provide — and perhaps Roth ought to stick to his usual position, heading up Revolution Studios. Rated R for language and some violent content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke