Character study ‘Freedomland’ fails in every area

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Freedomland
Revolution Studios, 2006
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore
Directed by Joe Roth
Screenplay by Richard Price
Rated R, 112 min.
Crime/drama/mystery

“Freedomland” presents a good lesson for those who are critical of Hollywood’s reliance on special effects, fast action and jiggling breasts. The lesson is that movies that address important issues are just as capable of being a vapid waste of time as those that do not. In a bad action movie, there are at least cool explosions to look at. “Freedomland” offers nothing of the sort, and also falls short on character, plot and everything else by which a movie is judged.

“Freedomland” is the story of Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), who is a patron cop to his community projects. One night, a woman (Julianne Moore) with horribly lacerated hands shows up at the local hospital and describes a car jacking. After pussyfooting around for a while, she confesses to the detective that her four year-old-son was in the car. Her brother is an officer in the neighboring white settlement of Gannon, and he quickly mobilizes police forces to shut down the projects, decreeing that no one will be allowed to leave until the child is found. This ignites a firestorm of indignation in the black community, which leads to racial tension and the threat of riots. Council struggles to discover the truth while everyone _” fellow cops and the people in his neighborhood _” turn against him.

It all sounds good yet fails utterly in execution.

The first major problem is the presentation of the movie. The trailers appear to hint that there may be a supernatural element involved. Within the first 15 minutes, the film sets itself up as a mystery. It’s filmed and edited in the gritty, choppy style of a thriller. However, it is none of these things. Ultimately, it is an intimate character study focusing on the detective and Brenda Martin, the aggrieved mother. In spite of what turns out to be a down-to-earth and actionless plot, the film is presented in the same style as a Scott brothers’ action movie.

Even when the film is understood to be a character study, it is not a successful one. The character of Brenda Martin is particularly befuddling. While a lot of her mysterious actions make sense once her secrets are revealed, she still comes off as being mentally ill. Julianne Moore gets lost in her anguish. Brenda’s hysteria and incoherence look more like an actress trying too hard than a grieving mother. Jackson is more tolerable, even distinguishing himself with moments of interesting vulnerability and compassion. Unfortunately, Council is a boring character. Through the entire film, the only action that he takes that leads him closer to the truth is calling in an organization of moms that searches for missing children. During the rest of the movie, he spends meandering around arguing with people.

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The film is based on a novel penned by Richard Price, who also wrote the screenplay. Price was incapable of writing the introspective, character-driven film he was aiming for. A novelist has the luxury of being able to drop us directly into the characters’ heads. Price tries to achieve the same end by including at least four long-winded dramatic monologues. Monologues almost never occur in real life, are tricky in theater, and have no place at all in film. These monologues are poorly written and always feel as though they’ve been forced where they don’t belong. The worst is a doozy of a monologue that Moore spits out during the last act while Council occasionally breaks in and tries to make her get to the point.

The film has a racial tension angle as well. While a large percentage of screentime is devoted to it, it doesn’t go anywhere interesting. The film deals with an important issue, but doesn’t say anything important. A bunch of undeveloped characters from the projects get angry and yell in the background while Council is running around arguing with people. What could have been an interesting subplot meanders in circles until a tacked-on confrontation occurs late in the third act.

There’s not much else to say about this film except don’t go.