My first thought as the words Dempsy, New Jersey and housing projects appeared on screen is - novelist/screenwriter Richard Price must obviously have some sort of intrigued fixation with projects in New Jersey, the cops that patrol them, and the conflicted world in which they live.
I mean this is the guy behind the novel and screenplay, Clockers, also set in Dempsy, New Jersey, though the film was set/shot in NYC.
Freedomland teams the often nominated actors Samuel L. Jackson (Lorenzo Council) and Julieanne Moore (Brenda Martin) in a racially charged investigation after Brenda is car jacked one night in the black populated Armstrong housing projects set in the fictional Dempsy, New Jersey. The housing project sits close to the edge of the predominately white community of Gannon, New Jersey. A town where the police force is used to "cracking heads" if necessary to maintain their reign of the area.
By the same token, the more racially diverse Dempsy Police Force tries to maintain its jurisdiction as the two forces butt heads throughout the investigation. The layers don’t end there as the hard-to-read Brenda not only works at the children‘s center at Armstrong, but her hot-headed brother Danny (Rob Eldard, doing fine work here) is "on the job" as a detective for the Gannon Police.
The film immediately shows its murky gaze as Brenda, hands bloodied, walks somnambulistically into a hospital ward and mumbles claims of being a car jack victim.
This all leaves one hazy case for Lorenzo, an asthma prone, rough-hewn cop. A detective known for his connected "top dog" status around the projects. "I own that place," Lorenzo boasts to the Gannon cops constantly searching for suspects on his turf during this and prior cases.
With a hyper-kinetic, visually stylized beginning (work by cinematographer Anastas N. Michos), the film’s puzzled stares, long pauses, and angry outbursts only beguile us more while not necessarily connecting us to its interesting complexities.
When the case produces no leads, and with an all out police shut down of the housing projects, searching for a lead "by any means necessary", the finger soon begins pointing back towards Brenda. Did I mention her son, Cody happened to be in the back seat? Now maybe you can understand the urgency. And when the boy nor car nor tangible suspect appears, the tension soars to epic proportions in the two warring towns and factions. It doesn’t help that as the lone wolf between these two tribes, Lorenzo’s investigative police skills and tactics appear to be erratic and unfocused.
An hour into the film I was hoping the socially thematic film could still rise above forced clichés and an at times pretentious storyline. The film finally picks up steam to become menacing and fascinating, and then putters to an obviously awkward, anguished end.
Along the way we are introduced to friends and foes, and foes who become friends as Lorenzo feels the heat - his loyalty questioned from both sides. He forms a late alliance with Friends of Kent (led by Edie Falco and LaTanya Richardson, Jackson‘s real life wife), a group of women doggedly determined to help find missing children.
On its own the film is fairly successful. But when put to test against the headline realities of today, the equivocation is once again exposed. From the "is she crazy" Andrea Yates case in Houston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Yates) to the notorious Charles Stuart situation in Boston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Stuart_%28murderer%29), and finally, the infamous Susan Smith madness(http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/famous/smith/index_1.html ), we’ve seen this before people, right? The question is whether I really want to see it again on the big screen.
In the film’s defense, a mystery is only as good as its ever unpeeling layers, and it’s here that Freedomland saves face with mixed results. In the final, overlong stretch, when the black community becomes more confrontational with a Gannon Police force ready for a rumble, Brenda begins to unravel the mystery for us all.
The performances for the most part are spot on though widely divergent. Jackson and Moore show their usual workmanlike skills. Jackson is especially muted in this role while Moore is allowed the opportunity to show wider range in a role that veers from believable to irritating. Edie Falco (Karen Colluci) again impresses in a role that at first glance appears to be a throw away but divulges itself to be pivotal.
Part of the problem is that the fabric feels like an empty cloth.
I do appreciate the film touching, if erratically, upon the loathsome side of America regarding racial inequities where violence and corruption make merry bedfellows. Also impressive is that Joe Roth has used a commercial film to tackle an alarming new breed of unspeakable horrors upon children, even if the film refuses to condemn the mother with the albatross of a truly violent murder.
The film accentuates far too many clichés (the angry black male and angry white cop characterization gets a bit tiring) and reinforced stereotypes, but in some ways the stereotypes help sell the social injustices and complexities on both sides, thereby adding dramatic weight. Not just racial mind you, but also judicial, political, and societal issues as a whole, and this, beyond the less than thrilling story, makes the film interesting and always timely, even if it’s probably ten years too late and tough to sell when compared to the stark headlines of the day, since I’ve already seen, read, or heard about this type of story in far more compelling manners.
Although I commend the team for tackling such a story of a possible filicide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filicide), I just hope we can move beyond the thinly painted scenarios and the pulled punches that we’ve become accustomed too, because as the film aptly says, "This is all of us and none of us."
© completed by Julian Boyance on February 23, 2006
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