A bumpy ride from start to finish—and not in a good way—director Joe Roth’s Freedomland is a drama that plays like an episode of a TV cop show stretched beyond its limits. Set in New Jersey circa 1999, Freedomland opens with a haggard, bloodied woman named Brenda (Julianne Moore) stumbling into a hospital after a carjacking at the nearby Armstrong housing projects. Oddly, it’s only under questioning by a police detective named Lorenzo Counsel (Samuel L. Jackson) that she mentions that her 4-year-old son was in the car.
The situation ignites a harsh outcry and strong reaction from the blue-collar, mostly white suburb adjacent to the projects, and the authorities—Brenda’s hothead brother (Ron Eldard) among them—swoop down on Armstrong and place the projects under lockdown, much to the outrage and resentment of the black tenants. As community leader the Rev. Longway (The Wire’s Clarke Peters) puts it, six killings in three years, many involving black kids, have never garnered this kind attention.
Lorenzo, who claims Armstrong as his beat, is caught in the middle, trying to keep the situation from erupting into violence while conducting his investigation. Although he at first believes Brenda’s statement of what happened that night, some things don’t add up, and he eventually engages the services of a missing-child group headed by a local activist (Edie Falco) to pin down what Brenda isn’t telling.
Moore and Jackson are their usual stalwart selves, although Roth’s direction sometimes has them going a tad over the top. Moore in particular gets some meaty moments, whereas it’s only Jackson’s considerable skills that keep his character from fading into the background. The real standouts here are the underused young black actors in Freedomland’s underdeveloped race-relations subplot, as well as Falco and her slow-burn performance as a driven, almost obsessed woman-with-a-cause.
In telling a story that is equal parts mystery and race drama, Roth has trouble balancing the two, resulting in a lurching, awkward pace. Lengthy monologues spar with chaotic pseudo-action scenes, one of which—Lorenzo’s initial ER interrogation of Brenda —feels self-conscious, contrived, and poorly staged.
And Roth isn’t the only one defeated by the material. In attempting to adapt his 500-plus-page novel to the screen, writer Richard Price is overcome as well. Much is glimpsed but never really explored: the seething rage of the projects, the “if it bleeds it leads” media frenzy, the simmering hostility between habitual screwup Brenda and her cop brother. The story feels stripped down to its basics, and what’s left is a muddled, half-formed story lacking impact, a missed opportunity.