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.
a good film that could have and should have been great. (2/06)
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Posted: February 17, 2006.