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Freedomland   C-

Columbia Pictures / Revolution Studios

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joe Roth
Writer: Richard Price (based on his novel)
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe, Aunjanue Ellis, Anthony Mackie.

Review by Rob Vaux

Julianne Moore has a yard of guts: a secret weapon that -- when coupled with her considerable talent -- can take your breath away. Who else could garner an Oscar nomination for playing a coked-out porn queen? Who else could look at Jodie Foster's indelible Clarice Starling and say, "Yeah, I can do that"? Who else could announce herself to the world by flashing her bush on-screen and not see it reduced to a late-night punch line (see Stone, Sharon)? Setting aside her not-infrequent stints of showing up just to cash the check, no other actress lays it on the line the way she does. Her go-for-broke technique pushes the envelope in startling and powerful ways, producing thunderous acclaim, indelible beauty, and the living miracle of Maude Lebowski.

Unfortunately, it can also produce something like Freedomland.

To be clear, Moore doesn't phone in her performance here. And the role -- a damaged single mother whose son goes missing -- is tailor-made for her. She attacks it with gusto, leaving nothing behind and announcing with naked ferocity that all the chips are in. It's brash, it's fearless, and somewhere along the line, it goes horribly, horribly wrong. She pushes the envelope so hard that she breaks through to the abyss beyond, sliding into a free fall of blotchy cheeks, choking tears, and brazen histrionics that derail the film almost from the beginning.

Against that, her co-stars play it cool, leaving understated impressions that generate a lot more goodwill. Samuel L. Jackson portrays a tough-yet-kindly police detective named Lorenzo Council, who first comes upon Moore's Brenda Martin shivering and buggy-eyed in a New Jersey hospital. She claims to have been carjacked in a nearby slum -- dominated by African-Americans -- and that her son was asleep in the back seat. Council wants to conduct the investigation quietly, but when Martin's dipshit cop brother (Ron Eldard) gets wind of it, he locks down the entire ghetto, adopting a "guilty until proven innocent" approach that stretches racial tensions to the breaking point. Into the fray comes Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), a missing-persons expert who may have the insight to determine where the boy -- or his body -- can be found. Both she and Jackson are strong yet calming influences on the proceedings, radiating competence and resolve that serve to steady Freedomland's often roiling waters.

Unfortunately, director Joe Roth doesn't lend them much help. A career producer with only a few directing credits to his name, he lacks the forcefulness to shape the film into the compelling drama it needs to be. It's clear early on that Martin isn't telling the whole truth about her son, but Roth never makes us feel the pull of the mystery surrounding her. Nor does he blend it with the overarching racial drama particularly well. The burgeoning race riot -- police oppression of blacks, unwittingly instigated by the plight of a white woman -- has some juice, but Roth never finds a way to make it coalesce. It floats around the kidnapping storyline like an ill-fitting suit, hopelessly searching for common ground while peripheral characters move in and out like the wind. Roth and editor Nick Moore have a decent touch with some of the smaller moments -- a pins-and-needles standoff between black residents and riot police is very effective -- but it never carries over to the bulk of the proceedings.

That could have been overcome, however, if Moore's Herculean acting gambit had paid off. She spends the entire film walking the razor's edge: gauging the difference between brilliance and disaster before assertively losing her balance. Her final soliloquy -- a draining 10-minute whirlwind of facial tics and mannered sobbing -- is hypnotic in its intensity... like watching an expert cliff diver execute a seemingly intentional belly flop. The results are startling, but hopelessly overblown; they would have sunk a far more stable film, and Freedomland has too many problems as it is. Moore should be applauded once again for her unparalleled daring, and if the price for such bravery is occasional misfires like this, then we should happily pay it. The actress is worth it. Her performances are worth it. Maude is worth it. But when you shoot for the moon and miss, it's a long way down. Freedomland gives us a front-row seat to her heartbreaking plummet.

Review published 02.16.2006.

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