FREEDOMLAND (Joe Roth, 2006)
A New Jersey housing project becomes a powder keg when the police lock down the community to search for a missing boy in FREEDOMLAND. A dazed Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) wanders into the hospital with injuries she claims to have sustained in a carjacking. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) interviews her, pushing particularly on the reason why she was driving through an area where she shouldn’t have been. (She lives in the nearby white community but works in the black, low-income neighborhood.) Only after much discussion does Brenda reveal that her son was asleep in the back of the car.
An exhaustive search commences, which includes the police blocking off the African-American neighborhood. This action inflames the residents and puts them at odds with the white officers from outside the area. Meanwhile, suspicions rise regarding Brenda’s version of events as no sign of the boy or her car are found. A group of parents who conduct their own searches for abducted children offer their expertise in the case. Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) provides an empathetic ear and shoulder for Brenda as the search leads to the ruins of a children’s asylum known as Freedomland.
FREEDOMLAND aspires to the topical and social relevance of a Spike Lee film, but Joe Roth is not up to the challenge. This ambitious film, penned by Richard Price, tackles issues of racial disharmony with the police and how feelings of parental inadequacy affect behavior, not to mention the conventional mystery elements with the missing kid and the possibility of Brenda being a Susan Smith figure. Roth has bitten off more than he can chew. He scrambles the disparate threads and character motivations into an enormous mess. There’s the distinct impression that the source material—Price’s novel of more than seven hundred pages—couldn’t be adequately condensed into a two-hour feature film.
Roth’s direction is terribly uneven and, at times, confusing. After Lorenzo’s initial interrogation of Brenda, he badgers her again in another room. Lorenzo starts sucking on inhalers—a detail unexplained at that point and not critical in the grand scheme—and gets an emergency shot of adrenaline while the camera careens around the space and he lobs questions and accusations at her. This stylistic break comes out of nowhere, and the hard shift from believing Brenda’s story to challenging it calls her truthfulness into question. An air of uncertainty hangs over FREEDOMLAND, yet for all of its internal confusion, it is apparent where events are leading.
Moore’s performance might have worked in a better film, but in FREEDOMLAND Brenda is too ill-defined for her acting choices to make sense. Brenda comes across as alternately lucid and mentally unstable. While it’s fair to assume that a woman with an abducted child won’t behave rationally at all times, there are moments when Brenda seems to be mentally impaired. That Lorenzo would be personally responsible for her—when he isn’t letting her shuffle off, that is—in even more nonsensical. Jackson manages the best he can for a character pulled in many different directions by the demands of the screenplay. The film is studded with actor-friendly monologues—Moore has a doozy that imparts key information—but they can’t salvage a film as disarrayed as FREEDOMLAND.