Published in 1998, Richard Price's lengthy novel "Freedomland" proved a cinematic riddle for its author. Price spent years trying to mold the book into a workable screenplay, with Joe Roth's new drama, starring Julianne Moore and Samuel Jackson, finally opening as the end result.
Viewers may wish Price had given the material a few more passes, because "Freedomland" is an unfocused, tonally complicated movie rendered skin deep because of running time. This was a project that would have been better served as a six-to-eight-hour HBO limited series, and I'm not just saying that because of all "The Wire" alums peppering the cast.
"Freedomland" begins with Brenda Martin (Moore) staggering through a New Jersey suburb. She's dazed and bleeding, moaning about a carjacking. When Lorenzo Council (Jackson), a veteran local detective, comes to investigate, he discovers an even more shocking crime -- Brenda's four-year-old son was in the car. The more Council stays on the case, the more he realizes Brenda's story could potentially prompt a riot in the volatile and largely segregated neighboring towns of Dempsey and Gannon.
As a writer, one of Price's greatest gifts is the ability to develop whole communities on the page. At heart, "Freedomland" is about communities under pressure and the things that bring people together and the events that can tear them apart. However, the myriad character and locations that can come to life over a novel are reduced to generic settings -- The Projects -- and a few bland satellite characters.
Although it's being positioned by Sony as a "suspense thriller," "Freedomland" really aspires to neither. Jackson's grizzled cop does minimal investigating, follows no clues and the truth about the abduction is revealed 75 minutes in with little fanfare. The only tension surrounds the building aggressions between the police and the citizenry, but that too fizzles out well before the closing credits.
As devised by Price and Roth, "Freedomland" sacrifices pace and emotional momentum in favor of long, stagy sequences in which the principals recite lengthy speeches, declarations of theme and exposition that don't even provide character depth. It's telling that despite reliably strong work from Moore and Jackson, Sony eschewed rushing the film for Oscar consideration. Their monologues are exhausting, dirges unmoored from the rest of the film. Moore, in one of the most consistently strained and intense performances I can recall, delivers one raw, pain-filled oration that must last at least 10 minutes. As acting goes, it's fantastic. As cinematic storytelling goes, it's crippling. Roth -- actually making a massive career leap from "America's Sweethearts" and "Christmas with the Kranks" -- is forever telling us things he should be showing.
With Jackson and Moore as the dominating presences, all justification for characters played by Edie Falco and Ron Eldard is lost. Sterling supporting performers like William Forsythe, Aunjanue Ellis, Anthony Mackie, Domenick Lombardozzi and Clarke Peters are in the background. In a different form, all of these faces could have had stories and identities, but in "Freedomland," there's just no time and no inspiration.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun