Moviemakers who exploit the suffering and death of children to ratchet up the dramatic stakes belong in the innermost circle of hell, but Freedomland—clumsy and overwrought as it is—earns the right to its harrowing trajectory. Based on a novel by Richard Price about the jacking of a car carrying a 4-year-old boy near an African-American housing project, the movie explores the way social neglect trickles down—through desperate, despairing, sometimes self-indulgent parents—to the next generation. The story goes off the standard mystery-thriller rails early on, when Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), who staggers into an emergency room with her palms shredded, takes an eternity to come out with the news that her car contained her son. She’s beyond grief, beyond hysteria; she’s in a sort of infernal fugue state. You look at her eyes, which seem misted with blood, and know that Freedomland is going to the worst places imaginable.
The detective in charge of Brenda’s case is Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), who has failed his own child (the young man is in prison for armed robbery) but now, with his partner (William Forsythe), maintains a stern, patriarchal presence at the Dempsy, New Jersey, projects. Council seems less like a cop than an “officer of the peace” with a gun and an incinerating stare. He hectors kids dealing drugs and men hitting their wives, his warnings edged with the ultimate threat: If they don’t shape up, he’ll “dump [them] into the system”—or send them to the neighboring white town, Gannon, where the cops aren’t known for their tough love. Now, with the missing boy’s uncle (Ron Eldard) a Gannon cop, the white police force converges on the Dempsy projects, and it falls to Council both to find the child and to keep the racial tensions from erupting into a full-fledged riot.
Price adapted his tumultuous, exhausting book for the director (and former studio boss) Joe Roth, who demonstrated a heavy touch in the Billy Crystal comedy America’s Sweethearts. A heavy touch is not what Freedomland needed. The opening scenes in the projects are so hyped-up—the camera all jitter and swerve—that there’s nowhere to go for the climactic ones, in which African-Americans stand nose-to-nose with cops in riot gear. Roth can’t disguise that some of the residents are—as in the worst of Spike Lee—walking placards of racial indignation. And he and Price have made an unwise change. In the novel, Freedomland is an abandoned theme park; here, it’s a state home for children that was shut down after a history of abuse. The title was already weighty enough without the concentration-camp vibe.
But Freedomland has a dead-solid foundation. In Price’s most recent fiction, the social reformer’s zeal exists side-by-side with the novelist’s drive to document how things work in a dead-end economy. What gives his narratives their urgency (and drama) is how the novelist in him constantly tests the reformer’s faith. And the struggle is right there in Jackson’s beautifully calibrated performance—the face a rigid mask, the emotions channeled through those white-hot eyes. Jackson is matched by Edie Falco—in a major performance—as Karen Collucci, an activist who lost her own child a decade earlier. Falco’s hair is darkened and chopped short, and she purges all music from her voice; she plays a woman turned by grief into a blunt, high-functioning monster who will never go back to “the business of living.” I’ve never seen anything like her final encounter with Brenda in the woods beside Freedomland. It’s not an interrogation—it’s an incantation that seems to get into Brenda’s head and push out the truth from the inside.
Roth doesn’t do enough to protect Julianne Moore in her climactic scene—the camera is too close and the lines too unnatural. But Moore is still extraordinary. She doesn’t have the expansive personality of a classic movie star: She transforms from within. (Looking at that translucent redhead’s skin, I sometimes wonder if her DNA is even the same from role to role.) She hits notes of despair that made me feel for her as an actress and a mother. Freedomland builds to a disclosure so wrenching that I literally couldn’t listen to it. (I’m not boasting of my sensitivity—only suggesting that it will make some people regret having seen the movie.) After that, there are four denouements—but I see it as a badge of honor that the film (like the book) has too many endings. Price wants to wring every last drop of hope out of the horror.
Freedomland probably won’t find a receptive audience. I heard a colleague compare it unfavorably to Crash, a film that’s overdetermined to the point of burlesque, the object of every scene being to strip each character down to his or her racist G-string. Freedomland is nowhere near so tidy or explicit. Its focus—the children—are not even onscreen very much. But their ghosts are everywhere, and the pain of the film is primal.