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Freedomland (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 11, 2021




Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe, Aunjanue Ellis, LaTanya Richardson, Anthony Mackie, Clarke Peters, Peter Friedman, Domenic Lombardozzi, Aasif Mandi, Philip Bosco, Liza Colon-Zayas and Richard Price.

Screenplay by Richard Price.

Directed by Joe Roth.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures.  113 minutes.  Rated R.

Richard Price’s 1998 novel Freedomland was a searing indictment of racial and class warfare in the modern urban world.  It was also a thrilling and complicated mystery and a surprisingly sensitive look at damaged people from opposite places in the world who are drawn together by tragedy.

The setting is the projects of a fictional North Jersey town called Dempsy (also home to Price’s novels Clockers and Samaritan) on the verge of a race war.  Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is the man there — he is a cop who is respected by the town and by his partner.  For years he has been doing a deft juggling act of appearing to be a friend of the people and still the law.  He is not perfect — he is asthmatic and can be rattled by a case and his son, who he was not there for as a kid, is in jail for a robbery that he committed with Lorenzo’s gun.

Council’s whole delicate world explodes one night when Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), a former junkie who was now working as a volunteer at a local school, shows up dazed and bloodied at the local hospital.  She tells the officers that she was carjacked and thrown into a glass strewn parking lot.  Only later, when Lorenzo Council shows up does she tell the rest of the story, that her four year-old son was sleeping in the backseat.

Her brother Danny (Ron Eldard) is a cop in the nearby (white) suburb of Gannon.  Danny personally makes it his personal vendetta to get the boy back  and yet he seems to feel little but disdain for his sister.

The Gannon cops try to take over, locking down the whole development and causing the already delicate race relations to simmer and boil.  Council is stuck in the middle — seen as black by the cops and seen as a cop by the community — all while he is racing time to find the child alive.

Moore’s performance as Brenda is devastating.  Some might say over-the-top, however her character is so damaged, so raw, so distressed that you can buy it.  Brenda has been consumed by self-loathing for her entire life and only her son had brought her any feeling of worth, so now with him gone she is nearly completely unraveled.  Jackson also does wonderful work in his most nuanced character in years.  Edie Falco (Carmella from The Sopranos) also turns in an overwhelming role as the mother of a murdered son who now runs a local citizens patrol to find lost children.

Price’s adaptation of his bulky (almost 600 pages) book has a tough vibrancy and hits on many of the high points, but through necessity loses much of the subtlety and backstory of the drama — more than occasionally causing the plot to make leaps that are somewhat under-explained in the context of the film.  This makes for some uncomfortable moments which leave the audience asking “how did we get here?” — in particular in a scene where Council is at the Gannon PD with Danny Miller and makes an accusation which he has never articulated even suspecting previously.

The direction, by Joe Roth, a studio exec turned director of bad films (Revenge of the Nerds II, America’s Sweethearts, Christmas with the Kranks) is jumpy and hyperactive and not as pedestrian as Roth’s normal work.  Still it is rather uninspired and you have to wonder what kind of grimy sheen a quality filmmaker like Scorsese or Eastwood or Tarantino or even Spike Lee (who did a terrific job with Price’s Clockers) would have brought to the table.

Freedomland is a good film that could have and should have been great.   (2/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: February 17, 2006.

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