Well, Julianne Moore has lost a child again, only this time he's not "The Forgotten"—he's the carjacked. In "Freedomland," a film that's practically a "Crash" moment from start to finish, Moore plays Brenda Martin, a former drug addict who works at a children's center in the Armstrong Projects in Dempster, New Jersey. The film opens with Brenda stumbling through the emergency room doors of the local hospital looking dazed and sporting two bloody hands.
At first she tells detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) that she lost her car, but he knows it's more than that. Was she raped? Was she trying to buy drugs? Did she know her assailant? None of the above, Brenda says, finally revealing that she went into the volatile area after dark to fetch something, and that her four-year-old son, Toby, was sick and sleeping in the back seat of the car. And the carjacker was black.
When he hears all this, Council all but loses it, as does everyone else . . . sort of. There's a mish-mash sideplot about white cops in neighboring Gannon who come into Dempster and try to extradite an African-American, with Council's role apparently that of local peacekeeper and gatekeeper. The tagline on this film reads "His streets. His rules." But for a big man, and a detective with "turf" to protect, Council sure gets pushed around a lot. He's as buffaloed by the other authority figures as the people are in the projects who are suddenly subjected to a complete and total "lockdown."
News cameras arrive, and we see what seems to be the same footage of people outside the window pointing at police and shouting. As riots go, this one is as orderly as a face-off between troops that you'd see in "The Patriot" or another Revolutionary War-era battle. Nobody reaches for a rock or bottle to pelt cops with, nobody veers out of the straight "battle" line that's been drawn, and worse, nothing really escalates in believable fashion. It starts off with yelling and finger-pointing, and pretty much stays at that pace until one person finally crosses the line and socks one of the riot police. In other words, it looks absolutely staged.
As the local spokesperson says to the police, they've had three homicides recently with black children victimized and no police showed up. But let one white child go missing and suddenly the place is crawling with cops. That double racial standard is at the heart of this drama, much more so than the personal travails of a woman whose world has suddenly come apart.
"Freedomland" shows promise in the beginning, with a beautifully edited sequence that melds together percussion and bass-heavy music and a montage of images that perfectly set the tone for a taut thriller. And Jackson and Moore deliver the kind of performances you'd expect. Unfortunately, there are problems with the script from Richard Price, who adapted his own novel, that make this film less than satisfying.
The stagey "riots" ore one thing, but Jackson's tepid part is another. Even Moore gets a juicier piece of meat to sink her teeth into, while Jackson seems to walk from scene to scene as if constantly assessing the situation. It's not his fault, mind you. That's what the script calls for, but the part really doesn't have the kind of maverick element that you'd expect. Another problem is the dialogue itself. Too many times it seems as if the characters deliver monologues that go on far too long for them to blend into the narrative. They draw attention to themselves and seem, like the riots, stagey as a drama class exercise. It's also problematic that there are logical head-spinners that make you wonder why things are happening as they are. But the worst sin of all, for a thriller, is that we know far too early in the narrative what Brenda's real story is. That renders the film more of an exercise in acting than a taut whodunit. There's but a single red herring to this mystery—Brenda's cop brother (Ron Eldard)—and it's not nearly enough. An element of interest also comes in when a woman's group based on the real Friends of Jennifer for Missing Children enters the picture, and Karen Collucci (Edie Falco, from "The Sopranos") has perhaps the most interesting scene in which she cleverly gets Brenda to reveal part of the truth. But even that's not enough to compensate for the other deficiencies.
"Freedomland" isn't a bad movie. It's deeply flawed, but still watchable. You just can't help but think that the lead part could have been so much stronger for Jackson, who seems at home in the role.
Video: There are two viewing options on this single-sided disc, 1.33:1 pan-and-scan and 2.40:1 widescreen that appears to be "enhanced" for widescreen TVs, as the lingo goes. Both versions are mastered in High Definition, and the colors are mostly muted in order to reflect the dark themes. Much of the action is filmed in low light or night exteriors, but the clarity is good and there's practically no graininess.
Audio: The audio soundtrack is in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with English and French subtitles. The 5.1 is robust, which you especially notice with the background soundtrack or percussive sounds. No complaints here.
Extras: With a film like this you always have to wonder when there are no extras. That usually means that either the filmmakers didn't want to talk about it—an admission of the film's shortcomings—or else the marketing people put the kibosh on bonus features so they'll be able to release a "special edition" later. Whatever the case, it's zippo, nada.
Bottom Line: There are some powerful scenes in "Freedomland" that are the result of a talented cast. But there are even more scenes that disappoint because of a script that takes an easy as-the-crow-flies route and gives more away than Oprah. The result is an uneven film that leaves you thinking it could have been so much more "real" under different circumstances.