It doesn't take much in today's tenuously strung-together world to tip social order into chaos. In Joe Roth's moody thriller, Freedomland, the peace is shattered between two adjacent New Jersey communities -- a poor, black housing project and a white, blue-collar neighborhood -- when a distraught white woman claims a black man jacked her car, and her 4-year-old son sleeping in it.
And how quickly the tinder burns: The white cops move on the projects; one cop is the missing child's uncle. The angry residents scream racial profiling, and ask why would they hurt the child; the mother, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), after all, worked at the projects' after-school center. The black detective in charge, Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson), pleads with all sides for understanding. Meanwhile, Brenda can't tell a coherent story.
Richard Price adapted his own sprawling 550-page novel for the screen, paring it to focus on Brenda, Lorenzo and the search for the child. The inevitable community breakdowns reverberate mostly in the background, and never feel wholly integrated with Freedomland's central drama: the bonding of Brenda and Lorenzo. For Brenda is a naïve soul wreaking havoc, and Lorenzo -- as cop, as de facto guardian of the projects, as failed father, as a concerned black man -- must restore the balance that Brenda's claims have upended.
Moore is an accomplished actress, but seems miscast as the worn-out Brenda. She has the look of a fine-boned performer working at a role, rather than simply being. Jackson, of course, can do street-wise, grizzled authority figure in his sleep, though that's no complaint. And yet, for all the histrionics of the raging projects, hotheaded cops and anguished mother, the film's dramatic linchpin is delivered in a brilliantly understated soliloquy from Edie Falco, who portrays the leader of group that helps search for missing children.
Ideally, Freedomland should have been a series on a marquee cable network, with enough time to lay out its intertwined cast in all their complexities and to linger long enough to create a palpable sense of community that is so easily ripped asunder. Price's novel told a bitter story marked not by melodramatic losses, but by small moments when fragile bonds and hard-won trusts were lost. As it stands, Freedomland makes an adequate, intelligent suspense thriller, aptly set on a lower boil than most of today's crash-and-bang cop-shop dramas.
What it lacks is the larger emotional punch. Brenda's anguish is palpable, but what of the dozens of other heartbreaks spun out in the wake of her tragedy? Hopelessness, anger, racism, the disintegration of families, rotting urban cores, police abuse -- we should have felt these aspects hit our gut, and not simply seen them as window-dressing.