We hadn’t heard much about the Samuel L. Jackson / Julianne Moore thriller Freedomland back when it was in theaters. Once it hit DVD, however, ads seemed to be everywhere, and it sparked my interest. I’m a big fan of Samuel L. Jackson – the hardest working actor in show biz today – and definitely wanted to see what he could do in the film. Julianne Moore, who I’ve never been a big fan of, has started showing real promise lately, especially with her role in The Forgotten (2004), so I knew the pair of them might make for a pretty decent film.
Still, it seems I’d seen the story a hundred times – a kid goes missing, and cops go out and look for him. Could Freedomland bring something new to the table, or would it just be another in the seemingly endless list of cookie-cutter kidnap films?
It’s nice to see that Samuel L. Jackson has finally gotten leading man role parts in the 21st century, after numerous unforgettable secondary characters. Maybe, like Travolta’s comeback, that can be contributed to Pulp Fiction (1994), where he was able to bring conviction and cool to the rather long-winded Jules Winnfield back in ’94…or maybe Hollywood has finally noticed Jackson’s star power. Either way, they are finally giving him the big roles, and he’s making them his own, as usual.
Freedomland is no exception, as Jackson turns a rather one-dimensional part into a fully realized character. It’s obvious in the beginning of the film that the script didn’t really specify a whole lot of outside characteristics for the part, but Samuel L. Jackson is able to bring the character to life with the same vitality and style that the viewer has seen from him time and time again. Whether it’s the adrenaline-pumping scene where he’s switched into overdrive once he learns a missing child is involved, or any number of scenes where he’s communicating one-on-one with Moore, he breathes a richness into his character that the viewer will be drawn to.
Julianne Moore, who just played a woman whose son is missing in The Forgotten (2004), gets to give it another shot in Freedomland. But this isn’t the distraught mother she’s portrayed so many times already. No, Moore brings it up another couple of notches, creating a woman who seems to be going slowly insane. As the movie progresses, her character continues to collapse, and Moore brings it out vividly. Sure, sometimes it does seem as if she’s going a little over the top, acting-wise, but her overall performance is one of her best yet.
Director Joe Roth – whose previous films included the awful Christmas with the Kranks (2004) – seems to be a bit out of his league in Freedomland. While he manages to do a pretty good job directing the kidnapping storyline, the race storyline falls a bit by the wayside. The viewer never really gets to know most of the people in this development, so as violence inevitably escalates, all the viewer can do is shake their head. Unfortunately, during the climatic sequence, all the viewer can do is focus on Jackson, who fades from the scene soon after it begins. All the viewer has to go on is the bitterness those characters have begun to show to Jackson as he searches for the “white woman”‘s child, which does nothing to endear them in the eyes of the viewer.
Instead of in-depth looks at any of the people living in the apartments, Freedomland instead concentrates on a ridiculously inane, mainly white, police department from neighboring town Gannon that barges in and bans people from the apartments during the search for the missing child – despite no evidence that anyone living there was involved. From there, it’s only a short step for viewers to connect the white cops of Gannon to a bungling LAPD back during the Rodney King so-called “trial”. Rather than focusing on any individual, the film groups them together…and hopes that lingering anger over the LAPD will get the viewer involved.
Freedomland also has a tendency to lose it’s characters. A Gannon cop disappears after his actions help to incite the violence, never to be heard from again. Does he simply slink out of town, or is he a victim of what he helped create when the violence erupts? The film doesn’t answer.
Edie Falco’s impressive portrayal of the leader of a citizen-organized missing kids search group is marred by the director’s seeming ability to toss her away once he’s done with her. She’s there during a pivotal moment – which occurs at the location Freedomland is named for – but then disappears, only to re-appear later in a scene with Jackson that doesn’t really go anywhere. Instead, it’s one of those ridiculous ending scenes directors sometimes put in, where the major players of the film meet back up together, just to show viewers who has managed to make it through the film, just in case they forgot.
While Freedomland has a good premise and a couple of impressive performances from actors we know, it ultimately fails to deliver what it’s beginning promises. Instead, we are inundated with a lot of little subplots that tend to interfere with the dual main issues: race relations and a missing young boy. Even the two main issues don’t get the same treatment, as the director stays focused merely on the kidnapping, and reduces the race issues into a side story. Crash (2004) did a much better job dealing with the racial aspect, and Ransom (1996) was able to deliver better on the kidnapping.
Freedomland could have been doubly powerful, with it’s emotional issues of race and kidnapping, but, under Roth’s directing, it ends up being half.