The Richard Price novel Freedomland is a suspenseful police procedural that also happens to examine race relations, media unscrupulousness, parental ambivalence, grief, and guilt in a more thoughtful, complex way than a lot of supposedly more serious non-genre novels. I read the book several weeks ago, when I first knew that I’d be writing about the adaptation and, by the time I was finished, I couldn’t wait to see how the film had turned out. Much of Price’s writing has a cinematic feel, so there were lots of scenes that would clearly play well onscreen, and the cast included two of our finest actors — Samuel L. Jackson is the rare screen badass who consistently tempers his toughness with intelligence and sensitivity, and Julianne Moore plays damaged, grief-stricken women better than anyone should have to. So why did the film leave me feeling so let down?
When a movie fails, a critic’s first impulse is always to blame the director, and it would be easy to assume that Joe Roth is out of his depth. Roth has mostly made his career as a producer and studio head, and almost all his previous directorial credits were for lame comedies — the most recent being Christmas with the Kranks and America’s Sweethearts. But he begins Freedomland seeming assured and on top of the material: The early scenes set off plenty of sparks — particularly Jackson and Moore’s first meeting, which is feverishly intense, with the camera aggressively lunging at the actors, flashing back and forth between them in a series of jump-cuts over a thunderous soundtrack. Moore’s character, Brenda Martin, has just walked into an emergency room with her hands torn to ribbons, saying she’s been carjacked near the Armstrong Houses, a housing project in Price’s fictional city of Dempsy, New Jersey. Jackson’s Lorenzo Council is the detective called in to interview her, but he’s also a child of those very projects and now their self-appointed guardian. Though Brenda is on the edge of hysteria, Lorenzo begins the scene calm and rational. But when she finally sputters out that her son was asleep in the back of the stolen car, his concern and frustration combine to drive him into a frenzy equal to hers.
Freedomland has a solid beginning and some great stuff at the end — Moore’s climactic scene is staggeringly emotional — but it gets sloppy in the middle, and there’s a lot of middle. The scenes dealing with the conflict between the residents of the Armstrong Houses — poor and almost all black — and the white cops from the neighboring town of Gannon, who barricade them in while waiting for someone to snitch on the carjacker, have a perfunctory feel, as though Roth couldn’t wait to get back to Brenda’s story. The film doesn’t make much effort to explain the rationale for closing off the Armstrong Houses, and we never feel that we know the projects or their residents — they’re treated as background rather than characters. In a movie that’s heavy on aerial shots, Roth doesn’t even bother to pull back and let us see the projects’ layout, but he doesn’t pull in close often enough either, so that we can understand the righteous anger building in the residents and the violence that is its irrational but inevitable outcome.
The film feels like a series of missed opportunities, like great moments that almost happened but were cut short before they had a chance to make their impact. One of its basic problems is that it’s simply too short. In paperback, Freedomland is 721 pages of densely packed text; ideally this story should sprawl out over a two-and-a-half-hour feature or perhaps even an HBO miniseries (imagine it as the American equivalent of the great British series “Prime Suspect”). At an hour and 52 minutes, it’s impossible for the film to do any more than scratch the novel’s surface.
Price wrote the screenplay himself, taking even more liberties with his story than another writer might. Several characters are cut out or combined — gone entirely is Jesse Haus, one of the book’s central figures, taking with her Price’s observations about media exploitation, and many minor characters and incidents have been omitted for the sake of both narrative and financial economy. The story is transposed — presumably to coincide with the cast’s availability — from the stifling heat of late June and early July to the relative chill of early May, and the location referred to by the title is altered, eliminating an important subtext. When Price (or Roth, or whomever) adds material, it tends to either dampen the suspense or just be thrown in without any thought to its implications. Some scenes just seem out of sequence — it makes no sense for Lorenzo to take time to visit his son while he’s in the middle of a high-profile, time-sensitive kidnapping investigation. The scene is there to show his self-recrimination over his own failings as a parent, but it feels like it was shot without knowing where it should go and then just thrown in randomly. And some of the provocative situations the film introduces — like having Brenda’s friend and co-worker Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis) assume Jesse’s role as Brenda’s caretaker — are never explored.
One of the film’s innovations that does work is Edie Falco’s character, Karen Collucci, a composite of the book’s Karen and her friend Elaine. Karen is the leader of a group of volunteers who search for missing children and herself the mother of a kidnapped son. She’s a steely counterpoint to the overwrought Brenda and a fascinating character in her own right, a grieving mother who takes pride in her loyalty to her missing child, in her stubborn refusal to move on with her life.
The frustration of seeing a book you care about turned into a movie doesn’t just come from the things that are left out — we can usually deal with that, within reason — it’s the way complex things are simplified. The movie sells Price’s novel short — he’s more perceptive about issues of race than just about any white writer I’ve read, and he has the rare gift of being able to put himself into the heads of a variety of characters with wildly divergent points of view. How many other earnest, well-intentioned white folks will admit how utterly useless earnest, well-intentioned white folks often are?
What the movie offers in place of the book’s more difficult issues is often nothing more than showy sentiment. Disappointingly, Jackson eventually succumbs, though it’s not really his fault. This is how the character is written, and to his credit as a person if not a performer, he can’t really sell the platitudes he’s given. Moore, though, is an actress who seems incapable of giving a compromised performance. Her Brenda is less of a wreck than she is in the book, but she’s no less damaged or sympathetic. But while Moore and Jackson both deliver moving performances, their different energies don’t always mesh. They’re both powerful actors, but Jackson’s is an extroverted intensity while Moore’s is directed inward. Under pressure, he explodes, she implodes, and the movie just goes poof.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Freedomland / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()