Unless you've burned through Richard Price's 1998 novel Freedomland, it's tough to pinpoint which direction this taut adaptation is headed. What starts as a routine police investigation erupts into a race riot before collapsing into a chilling portrait of a deranged killer.
Price accepted the challenge of converting his own novel into a shootable screenplay, which is good news. He retains the suspense and social commentary that strengthened his book. Sony then turned the script over to Joe Roth, which should terrify anyone who sat through the director's dippy America's Sweethearts or foul Christmas with the Kranks. Fear not, for Roth lets slip a gritty side as he allows Price to guide us through some darkened passages, literally and figuratively.
The film immediately establishes a New Jersey turf battle waged between Gannon, the upscale white suburb, and its less-advantaged neighboring village of Dempsey. One routine evening, Dempsey detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) responds to a carjacking alert. The victim, Brenda (Julianne Moore), was on her way home to Gannon from her volunteer job at Armstrong House, a Dempsey tenement project that's predominantly occupied by blacks. She tells Lorenzo she was dragged from her vehicle and left for dead. Brenda's in a state of shock, seemingly unaware of Lorenzo's steady line of questioning until she musters the courage to whisper the film's notable hook – her four-year-old son Cody was in the car.
In seconds, Freedomland goes from zero to 60. Brenda's brother Danny (Ron Eldard), a Gannon cop, storms the scene and barricades Armstrong House in hopes of flushing out a suspect. Brenda shuts down mentally and physically, impeding Lorenzo's investigation. And citizens on both sides of the widening racial divide are aggravated by the increasing police presence.
Price honed his skills on similarly mature features like Clockers and Sea of Love, and doesn't hesitate to turn Freedomland into a black-and-white issue. The film emphasizes how race can escalate an already heated situation and prevent sharp minds from responding rationally. As the cops crack down, the streets grow mean. So, too, does the language, though no matter how coarse, it rolls off Jackson's tongue. He even invents a few curse words that will probably shock and impress dock workers and gangster rappers.
After pushing the Lorenzo-Brenda-Danny conflict as far as it can, Freedomland flips a much-needed wild card by ushering in Friends of Kent – a coalition of concerned parents led by Karen Collucci (Edie Falco) that helps find missing children. It's an easy twist, and one that relieves the tension placed on Jackson and Moore. The wonderful Falco provides stabilization to an inflammatory thriller that could have overemphasized its messages or careened toward camp.
Price and Roth sustain their central mystery regarding Cody's whereabouts, yet the kidnapped child ends up being one of many surprises laced throughout the script. Jackson tunes up the tougher-than-leather detective bit he brought to Shaft (also penned by Price), while Moore's constant hysterics give way to a deeper, harder, more tragic performance. The screenplay does tip its hand to the final reveal, and those paying very close attention might end up one step ahead of Lorenzo as the case proceeds. Still, it's satisfyingly chilling the places this movie dares to go.