Freedomland

(2006) ** 1/2 R
102 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Joe Roth. Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe.

You may not immediately recognize the name Richard Price, but you've probably seen his work. The novelist-screenwriter wrote the films The Color of Money, Sea of Love, and Mad Dog and Glory. He penned the noir remakes Night and the City and Kiss of Death, and co-wrote Ransom and the Shaft remake. He adapted his own novel Clockers for Spike Lee, and now he has adapted its 700-page follow-up Freedomland for Joe Roth. Roth doesn't have the chops of Lee or Scorsese, but the uncommon flavor and unconventional rhythms of Price's writing make Freedomland compelling.

Freedomland is the ghostly, overgrown shell of a New Jersey state facility that once mistreated thousands of "neglected, abused, forgotten" children. It's also the pointed symbol of a blighted urban America, whose children are betrayed by its institutions (police, schools), by parents, by communities that fail to catch them before they fall. Police detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel Jackson), known to his friends as Big Daddy, has seen this failure hit close to home—he has a son, Jason (Dorian Missick), in prison. When the picture opens, Council is concerned with a native son of the Armstrong projects he polices: Rafik (Fly Williams III) is under a warrant for a nickel-bag of weed, though Council would rather negotiate a truce than press an arrest.

When white woman Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), palms bloodied, stumbles into a hospital to reveal she's been carjacked, it's a new priority for Council. The racial tension is immediate (in a Freudian slip, Martin says "black" instead of "back"), and Martin claims her carjacker was black. Worse, after prodding, Martin drops a bomb: her four-year-old son was in the back seat of the car. Now the case is a priority for everyone, including Martin's cop brother Danny (Ron Eldard), a concerned-parents group that specializes in missing children, and the people of the Armstrong projects, who fear misdirected police retribution.

Freedomland is partly a mystery, but primarily a personal drama of parenting in a racially tense America. Jackson sinks his teeth into his atypically well-written role, and though Moore is not as poignant as one might hope, she is certainly technically proficient as the harried mother pushed over the brink of sanity. Her performance seems to take its cue from Roth's self-consciously jittery direction, which breaks into frantic handheld camera for high-tension moments.

Price's script isn't much subtler than Roth's direction (the symbolically named Council spells out, "Every little kid out there is Jason for me now"), but he's capable of spinning magical monologues. Edie Falco, as the head of the parent's group, nails a change-up speech, laced with duplicity, on the grounds of Freedomland. Moments like these make Freedomland richer and more ambitious than the typical fare: ironically, the film plays a bit like the series of gut punches one might receive from a two-part episode of a well-written TV cop drama (Price has written for HBO's The Wire). In fact, some may find Price's ripped-from-the-headlines story more dramatically credible than the showy Crash.

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