The way I see it, a good movie has to have a sturdy structure in order to support the weight of its characters and plot. If this idea falls through, then all you'll have is an incoherent mess. "Freedomland," unfortunately, falls into this category. It had so many missing pieces that its structure pretty much collapsed the moment it started. No, that's actually too limiting: the pieces were never together to begin with. Everything about this film was out of place and chaotic, a haphazardly strewn together story that only resulted in a jumbled mass of wrongfully conceived ideas.
The movie begins in the streets of an urban housing project in Dempsy, New Jersey. There we meet Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), a police detective who seems to know everyone in the neighborhood but isn't exactly up to speed on all of its problems. One of the women continually nags him to do something about her abusive boyfriend, and Council continually tells her that he'll take care of it as soon as he can. Right from the start, he seems burned out and detached, something that other officers have picked up on. They were noticeably standoffish and haughty. Obviously, some would rather not work with him. Exactly why is never really explained, a fact that only serves to make the many moments of mounting tension and hostility seem ill fitting.
Council is thrown into a web of mystery when Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) walks into Dempsy Medical Center. Her hands are covered in blood, and she's mentally cut off from the world. Council is called in to question her. For a while she's evasive, and occasionally seems to be rambling. Eventually, she says that, while taking a shortcut through the park next to the housing project, she was carjacked by a black man. She also says that her son, Cody, was still inside the car.
This prompts the complete shutdown of the neighborhood, an act that angers many of the residents (usually to the point of physical altercations). No one is allowed to enter or leave. As if this weren't bad enough, Council's personal interest in finding Brenda's missing son has landed him in hot water with his superiors. Brenda's brother, Danny (Ron Eldard), is also not too fond of Council. We never really find out why, though. Maybe it's because he's also a police detective. Or maybe it's because of the past he shared with his sister. But these are only guesses; everyone in this movie is so one-dimensional that guesses are all we have to go on. This is especially true of Danny; his appearances are so sparse that his inclusion was completely unnecessary.
Council becomes increasingly suspicious of Brenda; he notices that many of her claims don't seem to add up. Right from the start, it's obvious that there's more to Brenda than meets the eye. It continues all the way through the film, most prominently displayed through her never-ending mental patient type of behavior. She's constantly walking around in a confused stupor, and there never seems to be a moment when her cheeks aren't wet with tears. Julianne Moore delivers a performance that's nothing more than overacting, and it very quickly becomes exhausting to watch her. By the time I got to the ending, I'd lost all traces of compassion for her. She was one of those characters I wished I could slap in the face while screaming, "Snap out of it!"
One of the film's biggest problems is the number of subplots that are left dangling before I had a chance to experience them. Let me give you an example: we eventually learn that Council has a son in prison named Jason (Dorian Massick). The moments they're together are presented so insignificantly that it comes off as nothing more than filler material. Had this subplot been followed through, it could have been powerful and dramatic. Here's another example: we're introduced to a group of women dedicated to finding lost or abducted children. In charge of the group is the dedicated Karen Collucci (Edie Falco). Her personal story (which I won't reveal) is somewhat compelling, but it was brought up too late in the game for me to take any real interest. Even the location of Freedomland, a padlocked and abandoned children's asylum, remains in the shadows. Its only significance is that it doubles as the film's title.
This is one of those movies that can't decide what it wants to be. On the one hand, we have the mystery surrounding Brenda and the search for her missing son. On the other hand, we have a commentary on race relations between blacks and whites. These are fine in and of themselves, but put together, they're completely incompatible (at least they were in this film). Even more unsettling is the way race is portrayed. There have certainly been plenty of films that tackle the subject of race in effective, thought provoking ways. But in this case it comes off as a way to exploit negative, unfounded stereotypes. We have the abusive boyfriend who smuggles drugs. We have the strong willed community leader who takes an aggressive stand against authority figures (at one point, he distributes t-shirts displaying the suspect's sketch, claiming the face represents all and none of the people). We even have the obligatory riot scene between the residents and law enforcement. While all this manages to convey the point that the road to understanding and tolerance is rocky and turbulent, it still fails to instill compassion. Maybe if it had actually connected with the story of Cody and his mother, it might have had some merit.
"Freedomland" unfairly left me with more questions than answers and cruelly twisted my anticipation into disappointment. I resented the fact that I had to leave the theater without gaining some minute sliver of insight. For a film that dares to take on such controversial topics, it was the least they could have done.