The ironically titled Freedomland deals with a situation resembling the sensational stories that scream from the front pages every day and absolutely absorb the drooling forensic ghouls of the cable news channels. The movie examines such volatile contemporary materials as a missing child, a black suspect, racial tensions, the enormous distance separating comfortable suburbia from urban housing projects, police treatment of minorities, and the sheer heartbreak involved in the search for the truth of any crime.
The picture opens with a distraught woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), staggering into an emergency room, her hands bleeding profusely, reporting that her 4-year-old son, Cody, has been abducted in a carjacking. Her account, the subsequent investigation, and the publicity surrounding them inflame a smoldering hostility between inhabitants of a project in her New Jersey community and some misguided policemen, ultimately igniting something like a full blown riot.
She tells Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) that a young black man carjacked her vehicle near the housing project, accidentally abducting her son, asleep in the back seat. Her hotheaded brother, a detective in a suburban police force, brings his colleagues into the problem, intending to find his nephew by locking down the project, which of course simply exacerbates a tense situation. Besides searching for the lost boy, Council must try to calm both sides and convince his supervisors of the validity of his own investigation.
Detective Council's search for answers leads him into the life of the grieving mother, who fears, along with everyone else, that her child may be dead. In a series of anguished speeches, she tells him about the circumstances of her past, her previous drug addiction, her work in the project's own school, and the depth of her devotion to her child. As she says, Cody allowed her to be born, giving new meaning and purpose to her life.
Despite his sympathy for the mother and his understanding of her plight --- he has in effect also lost a son, imprisoned for armed robbery --- the detective senses something wrong with her story. Her account and her reactions to his interrogation don't quite add up and she keeps breaking down into hysterics and self destructive behaviors when he questions her closely. To solve the mystery he enlists the help of an informal organization of women who search for missing children when everyone else has given up.
When that group enters the search for Cody, the film moves into the dark territory of guilt and desperation. The leader, Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), whose son was murdered 10 years earlier, questions Brenda indirectly, telling her own history and painfully eliciting the full account of the night of Cody's disappearance. The result, somehow shocking yet not surprising, leads to a final sad revelation, a solution that represents more of a defeat than a triumph for the detective.
Aside from its presentation of a sadly familiar story and a mystery of the sort that cops deal with all the time, Freedomland shows not so much the excitement as the utter sadness of everyday criminal investigation. The detective in this cop movie finds only what he expects, not an answer to a puzzle, but an affirmation of his disbelief in the possibility of human goodness. He understands that his profession is a vocation of unhappiness, uncovering truths he would rather not know, finding his own anguish in the suffering of others.
Julianne Moore looks wan and disheveled, entirely unglamourous, throughout the movie, but lays on the hysteria with a shovel, so that her set speeches seem increasingly a series of self pitying whines.
On the other hand, Edie Falco conveys the genuine emotion of an ordinary woman who has suffered the worst loss imaginable with terrific control; she and Jackson communicate almost entirely with only a few words, a glance, a nod, a tightening of the lips, telling each other and the audience the full extent of what they discover without the need of any prosaic explanation. Her appearance in the film even quiets Jackson's occasional excess, so that their work together creates the central relationship, the connection that reveals the full depth of its terrible heartbreak.
Freedomland (R), screenplay by Richard Price, based on his novel; directed by Joe Roth, is playing at Culver Ridge, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Plaza, Tinseltown, and Webster 12.