When New Jersey detective Lorenzo Council gets a call about a carjacking victim who is now at the emergency room, he at first treats it like a routine case. Brenda Martin had staggered into the hospital with bloodied hands and explained that a young black man from an urban housing project had attacked her and stolen her car. While interviewing Brenda, though, Lorenzo senses that she's not telling the whole story. Then, belatedly, and as if in a daze, she reveals something that will turn the city upside down. She tells the detective that her 4-year-old son had been asleep in the back seat of the car.
No longer a routine case, Brenda's report causes the police to leap into action. Her brother, Danny, is a detective for the nearby Gannon police force, and he pressures Lorenzo's Dempsy force into putting the Armstrong Houses into a complete lockdown until the missing boy is found.
Tempers flare, and submerged social fissures soon split the neighborhood between black and white, cop and civilian. Lorenzo is caught in the middle as he struggles to solve the mystery and find the missing boy before a full-fledged race riot breaks out. The deeper he digs, the more he discovers that everything is not as it first seems—with both Brenda's story and with the society he lives in.
Lorenzo is a hard-bitten and often cynical cop, but he doesn't let that deter him from a dedicated pursuit of the truth. Despite difficult circumstances, and despite the racial tensions that explode later in the story, he and his partner back each other up and support each other. Lorenzo also mentors several troubled young men who live at Armstrong Houses, even though that is not one of his official duties.
It turns out Lorenzo's concern for these young men results from having been a poor father to his now-grown son, who is serving time in prison. "He's the kind of man he is because he's the kind of man I showed him how to be," Lorenzo confesses. He has reestablished a relationship with that son, though. "It's kind of late in the game," Lorenzo explains, "but I want to be there for him."
[Spoiler Warning] Central to the story is the issue of criminal negligence as it relates to leaving young children home alone. The results here are fatal, and the filmmakers take great pains to use those results to teach a positive lesson about taking good care of our little ones.
Neighborhood activist Karen Collucci and a group of likeminded friends are selfless in their efforts to try to find the missing boy. While racial tensions are running high in the neighborhood, Felicia offers to help the emotionally fragile Brenda, even though Felicia's other black friends disparage her for doing so.
The story does a good job of showing the destructive consequences of selfishness and a single lie. While watching so many of Freedomland's characters doing the wrong thing even though they're given the opportunity to do the right thing, I could not help but think of two passages from the New Testament: James 3:5 ("Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark") and James 1:14-15 ("But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.").
Lorenzo says that after 22 years of police work he has little faith in humanity. "I do believe in God," he adds. "I believe that whatever happens to us, the good things, the bad things, they all happen because God wills it." Turning to the topic of Brenda's missing (and presumed dead) boy, he says, "God wanted that little boy like He's gonna want all of us one day." Urging Brenda to ease up on her grief, he says, "Let go and let God."
At first it's not clear if Lorenzo's religiosity is merely a pose to get Brenda to get around to the real truth of the matter, but later it becomes evident that his faith is genuine.
A community leader in the housing project is called "Rev," and he wears a cross around his neck. A priest prays before a search party enters the woods looking for the missing boy. An impromptu memorial contains a note that reads, "Go to God, little angel." Upon getting a break in the case, a woman says, "Thank you, God."
Going to extreme verbal lengths to assert his authority during a raging confrontation, Danny screams at Lorenzo, "You know God? F--- God. There is no God. I'm God!"
Brenda stresses to a police interviewer that she was not raped during the carjacking. Felicia seems to excuse her boyfriend's infidelity by saying he "wasn't gettin' none" from her. Brenda talks about having had an affair with another woman's boyfriend.
When Brenda reaches the end of her emotional tether, which she does quite often (and quite understandably considering what she is going through), she hurts herself. Sequences that are heart wrenching to watch include her hitting herself in the face, smashing her hand against a doorframe and later, hurling herself at a wall. She talks of her "need" to inflict pain upon herself as punishment for "f---ing" up so many times in her life. In one scene, she falls (or is thrown, you're not sure when you see it) to the ground where her hands are cut open with shards of glass. Her hands are subsequently caked with blood when she walks into the ER.
Danny slams a suspect's face into a table and then starts punching him. Other cops push and shove the suspect and Danny, trying to break up the fight. Confrontations between police and protesters show people being thrown to the ground, beaten with billy clubs, kicked and handcuffed. Lorenzo, who wears civilian clothes, is mistaken for a rioter and is whacked on the head, opening a bloody wound. (Earlier, his head is smashed up against a window.) Rioters set various objects on fire.
A man falls from a second-floor window, and we later see him unconscious on the ground. The issue of domestic abuse is raised when Felicia says her boyfriend has started hitting her.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Brenda is a reformed drug addict, and when asked why she was driving near the housing project at night, she says, "I was not copping rock [crack cocaine]." Later, she's asked, "Are you getting high again?" (There's no indication in the movie that she has gone back to her drug habit.) A man is wanted on a warrant for selling a "nickel bag of weed."
Lorenzo has asthma, and several times he has to resort to an inhaler to catch his breath. Once, when the inhaler does not work, a doctor gives him an injection of adrenaline "straight up, no chaser." A man smokes a cigarette.
[Spoiler Warning] Brenda says she used cough syrup to help her boy fall asleep, and we later learn that the boy died from drinking an entire bottle of the cold remedy. Brenda is convinced that he did so to spite her for leaving him alone.
As did the Oscar-nominated movie Crash, Freedomland hyperbolizes racial tension to make a point about the necessity of racial respect. To trigger that wider clash of cultures, though, this film narrows its focus to the relationship of one mother with her child. Unlike any other movie I can think of, it passionately, almost obsessively scrutinizes how layers of codependency, lust, selfishness, despair, loneliness, self-loathing and isolation have affected Brenda's bond with her son.
Part character study—of both people and society—and part psychological drama, this visual dirge, which author Richard Price adapted from his own novel, then uses those issues of race and parenthood to become a (sometimes heavy-handed) metaphor for the state of American culture today. One way it does that is by taking its name from an abandoned children's home that figures into part of the story. That haven, now decrepit and in ruins, promised respite and shelter for abused and abandoned children but wound up abusing them itself. Perhaps Price and director Joe Roth mean that to reflect the American promise now often considered broken—if not in its entirety, at least in part.
To flesh out that metaphor, Freedomland gets down and dirty. Like Crash, it's liberal in its depictions of violence and its use of profanity, particularly the f-word. But those content notations only hint at how far things go. New York magazine's David Edelstein writes, "Freedomland builds to a disclosure so wrenching that I literally couldn’t listen to it. (I’m not boasting of my sensitivity—only suggesting that it will make some people regret having seen the movie.) After that, there are four denouements—but I see it as a badge of honor that the film (like the book) has too many endings. Price wants to wring every last drop of hope out of the horror."
Horror tinged with hope. That is indeed what Price is offering. At the heart of Freedomland lies one of Lorenzo's more poignant pronouncements: "God always gives you another chance. God's grace is retroactive." Maybe it is because the story is so bleak and destructive that Lorenzo's dissertations on faith and God's character resonate so emphatically ... but it's also why even seasoned film critics are having a hard time watching.