Watching Freedomland reminded me a bit of last year's Cinderella Man. That zero-to-hero boxing movie's conclusion isn't much of a mystery. But, the film created such tension and empathy for the characters, that being able to guess the ending didn't matter. The journey was the important part.
This is probably what the filmmakers of Freedomland hope for. And it mostly works. Based on the book by Richard Price (who also wrote the screenplay), the movie centers on a carjacking/murder case with a solution that is fairly obvious from the get-go. Price has even said publicly that the film is loosely inspired by a famous real-life case. This isn't as much a thriller as it is a drama—propelled by the questions of how the characters will find out the truth. And how that truth will affect their world.
Freedomland begins in a New Jersey public housing project called Armstrong, where local detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) is king and protector. But he's thrown above his head when a white woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), is carjacked near Armstrong by a black man. The bad news: Her 4-year-old was asleep in the backseat. Worse news: Her brother (Ron Eldard) is a cop in the almost all-white neighboring suburb of Gannon. Soon, Armstrong is under siege by Gannon cops. There's a bitter stalemate between races as Council investigates the crime. As both races put pressure on him, Council turns to a neighborhood advocacy group, led by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), which regularly mobilizes to help police find missing children. Together, they try to put the pieces together before Armstrong tears itself apart.
As in the book, Price uses the carjacking/kidnapping of a white child by a black to probe racial fears, prejudice, and smoldering tensions. Injustice rules the day. While one character notes that there've been several recent black-on-black crimes in Armstrong, the projects have never seen a media—or police—presence like the one caused by the disappearance of a white boy. In fact, the case blows the lid off of pent-up aggression. Cops use the siege as an easy opportunity to arrest black residents with trivial warrants. The boy's uncle invites the blacks' anger by blaming an innocent—and savagely beating him. Leaders of the black community fight back with demonstrations, rallies, and accusations, while black teens fight back more violently.
The biggest plus to the film's handling of racism is that it's fairly balanced. And the movie does provide some insights on racial injustices—such as the difference in how the world reacts to a crime against whites compared to blacks. But unlike the superior Crash, the film's investigation doesn't go much further than just showing these somewhat clichéd events. You see these injustices occurring, but little comment is made other than the fact that they are counterproductive and harmful. But we know that. Not much of this is new territory, but it can be gripping at times.
But there are problems with unevenness, not to mention difficulty trying to figure out what is going on. Sometimes it feels as if readers of the book may understand why a scene, a character quirk, or a side plot is included, but uninitiated movie viewers are left in the dark. Characters seem to change back and forth. Roth cuts too quickly and spastically in some places, but plods along slowly in other scenes. For instance, when Council first learns that Martin's son was in the car, the scene is so crazily paced (with lots of quick cuts) and delivered with so much random yelling that it's hard to tell what is wrong. Samuel L. Jackson suddenly spins from a calm but caring take on his Shaft character into a bumbling, weak Barney Fife.