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Freedomland
cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, William Forsythe, and Philip Bosco

director: Joe Roth

117 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
When a black driver abducts a New Jersey mother's child, apparently as part of a carjacking, cop Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) battles to solve the case before its implications on neighbourhood race relations grow too desperate. To help him he uses a missing child researcher, one of a group of mothers all of who had lost children. But as he confronts the mother, Brenda (Julianne Moore), and they search 'Freedomland', a deserted children's facility, all is not as it seems...

Freedomland is a serious film, with serious messages. One could easily imagine it as a project of Spike Lee at his most socially conscious, and whose film Do The Right Thing (1989) some of this resembles. Joe Roth, the director of the present title, has a less prestigious CV than Lee (Roth's last movie was Christmas With The Kranks), but makes surprisingly good work of bringing Richard Price's novel to the screen - even if the sum is less than its parts. Price's previous, respected, work for the screen includes screenplays for Clockers and Shaft. With his own adaptation of Freedomland, he was faced with bringing to audiences a story with two distinct threads: that of a kidnapping as well as imminent social unrest. The fault-line between the two, although necessarily related in the narrative, would always be a difficult one to mend and some of the weaknesses in the final film can be put down to uncertainties in bridging that gap.

Uncertainties existed too in the studio's marketing of the film which, in the words of one observer, made it out to be a 'thriller/ action movie with some paranormal slant.' The fact that Freedomland never quite makes it mind up what it is (although the paranormal makes no appearance) as well as the studio's own confusions, explain maybe why it has failed to make a strong impact on the public since release.

This underrating is a pity as there's much to admire in a movie, which sees Samuel L. Jackson on good form as a cop torn between conscience and community while, casting misapprehensions apart, Julianne Moore has a good go as the mother of a missing child. The scenes between the two, or between Brenda and the child-searching organisation 'Friends of Kent', are the best in the movie. One or two - as when the truth of matters is teased out of the shell-shocked mother outside Freedomland, or Moore's monologue during police questioning - are outstanding, The trouble is that when the story broadens out from this central relationship it becomes more diffuse. It's frankly less believable, partly due to some stereotyping amongst the blacks and the cops. Council has his work cut out finding a missing child, defusing local tensions as well as facing some personal issues of his own. But when civil upheaval ensues and he finally offers the troubled Brenda his apparently hard-won advice (something about God always giving parents a second chance with their children) nothing is as memorable as it ought to be. No less convincing is her sudden kiss of the policeman, suggesting a depth of emotion un-guessed at, both by him and the audience.

Outside of Brenda and Lorenzo's increasingly fraught relationship as investigator and victim the film suffers from a degree of self-importance. In an interview titled Writing Freedomland included on the disc, Price talks about the inspiration behind his book - that of the real life Susan Price, who also claimed her child had been abducted by a black man. He goes on to term racism as "the American flu - everyone's got it." This may well be the case, but Freedomland offers little new in its portrayal, right down to the moment a provocative riot cop pushes an urban youth over the line into violence to start a riot. In The Lay Of The Land, another featurette, we get to see something of the technical side of the production, and how the cinematographer and production designer worked to give a noir-ish feel to project, but again this is not something especially noteworthy. Finally, in the piece Race On The Job, real-life homicide detective Calvin Hart ruminates on being black cop (Hart appears in a supporting role in the film - as, incidentally does author Price, as Brenda's attorney) and clearly it is not an easy line of work. Neither the director, Jackson or Price contribute to any of this, nor is there any commentary track - which is disappointing. There's only deleted scenes and the trailer other than this, perhaps another indicator of lack of faith in the product.

Neither as bad as some have made out, nor as good as it might have been, this is worth a rental but the cost of blu-ray discs especially means that hard earned cashed might be better invested elsewhere for permanent acquisition.
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