The critics almost universally hate Freedomland. It only got a 25% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Yahoo’s critics and users alike could only muster enough love to give it a “C” grade. I don’t get it. I absolutely love this film.
Some of my fondness for it might be exceeded expectations. The trailer made it out to be an interesting, but more or less generic serial killer film. Julianne Moore shows up at an emergency room with bloody hands and tells them that she was just car-jacked. Police detective Samuel L. Jackson shows up to investigate and all hell breaks loose when Moore, still in shock, reveals that her four-year-old son was still in the car. The trailer goes on to show Jackson searching the ruins of an abandoned children’s asylum called Freedomland, discovering something shocking, and there are hints that this kind of thing has happened before. And, oh, by the way, all this is complicated by some kind of civil unrest going on in the community. That’s the trailer.
I’d accuse the marketers of being liars if a) that wasn’t a repetitive statement and b) I could think of a better way to get audiences into the theater. Instead, I’ll just say that Freedomland is not the movie the trailer advertises.
Yes, there’s a mystery. It’s central to the plot and the movie never becomes not-a-mystery, but it’s also not just a mystery. The civil unrest that seems incidental in the trailer is caused by Julianne Moore’s description of the car-jacker: a black man. She comes from the rich, white side of town, but she volunteers in a children’s program in the predominantly black projects and that’s where she was when she was attacked. It isn’t long before white cops from her side of town descend on the projects to lock it down until the car-jacker, now a kidnapper, can be found.
The movie’s not just about racial issues either. It handles them effectively and helps you empathize with the helplessness and anger of the people who are being held hostage in their own neighborhood, but there’s more. Themes that really connect with me as a parent. The movie talks a lot about what it means to be a parent, the person who’s responsible for protecting a child. Julianne Moore is absolutely destroyed because she wasn’t able to protect her son. Samuel L. Jackson begins to rethink his relationship with his own son who’s locked up in prison for commiting armed robbery with Sam’s gun. And Sam also has to deal with the fact that the people in the project look to him as their friend and protector, yet he has no control over the other police who are enforcing the lockdown of the neighborhood.
There’s so much going on in the movie on so many different levels. Maybe that’s why the critics don’t like it. They’re using words like “overblown,” “mess,” “sloppy,” and “bungled.” Maybe it’s a more complicated movie than they expected. Roger Ebert, my favorite movie critic, asks questions in his review that make me wonder which movie he was watching. The answers are in the film. I can’t reveal them here without spoiling the film, but they’re there. I just think critics were too busy or too lazy to see them.
Freedomland is a thoughtful, provocative, touching, well-acted film that avoids genre conventions. If it’s rotten, I don’t want fresh.