When writer/director Jason Lew’s drama The Free World begins, star Boyd Holbrook is instantly magnetic, commanding the screen in what appears to be a story about the difficulties of prisoner rehabilitation once introduced back out into the world. Soon he encounters an enigmatic woman, played by Elisabeth Moss, and the film shifts its focus to a love story between two broken people. But then, after another 30 minutes or so, the movie shifts its focus once again to a surprisingly violent thriller. While the individual pieces of the film work for the most part, the story as a whole is incongruous and, ultimately, unconvincing and frustrating despite a truly terrific performance from Holbrook.
Holbrook plays a man named Mo Lundy, who is only days removed from being released from prison for a crime it turns out he actually didn’t commit. He’s a quiet, shy, reserved young man who finds comfort in working at an animal shelter alongside its owner, a woman who seems to traffic in rehabilitating both animals and former criminals, played by Octavia Spencer. The crime for which Lundy was imprisoned is kept somewhat ambiguous, but we know he became famous after going to prison at the age of 15. Now, on the outside, the Southern community isn’t entirely convinced of his innocence, adding to his lonely existence.
The film gets off to a really strong start as it looks to be delving deep into issues of prisoner rehabilitation and the prejudice of the outside world. Lundy converted to Islam while in prison, which appears to calm and center him, but his demeanor reflects that of a beaten and broken down dog, despite his violent reputation from his time inside prison.
He soon comes into contact with a woman named Doris (Elisabeth Moss), who turns up at the shelter one night in a mental state and covered in blood after earlier that day accompanying her police officer husband to the shelter, where their dog Charlie had to be put down after having been beaten violently by Doris’ abusive prick of a husband. Afraid of being committed for yet another crime he didn’t commit, Lundy decides to take the unconscious Doris back to his home instead of calling the police, and he soon realizes Doris is on the run after committing a violent if somewhat understandable crime of her own.
Holbrook and Moss both turn in fine performances, but the circumstances of their encounter and subsequent cohabitation are morally murky, and while the film offers that they begin a relationship as two lonely souls, it’s impossible to overlook the inherent selfishness of Doris and the pity of poor Mo. Which makes the film’s subsequent events hard to stomach, as their supposed love takes them on a far-fetched journey that shifts tones dramatically, turning into a muddled riff on Badlands.
Lew shows promise in his camera placement and blocking early on in the film, but as it continues the pacing becomes a bit of a problem, and quiet shots of Doris and Mo become tired. The Free World is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and its hodgepodge of tones and focus result in a frustrating viewing experience. Moss is solid in her turn as Doris, even if the character doesn’t have much dynamism, but Holbrook is truly phenomenal in his understated turn as a broken man trying desperately to live. The anger that seethes beneath his surface is alluring instead of dangerous, and the fear with which he plays his early encounters with Doris is stirring, revealing more about his character than any amount of dialogue could ever hope to. Holbrook’s work here is nothing short of breakout-worthy.
Which makes The Free World as a whole all the more frustrating. A performance this good deserves a better film, and while Lew certainly has some talent behind the camera, the structure, pacing, and tone of the movie leave much to be desired.
Click here to catch up on all of our Sundance 2016 coverage thus far, and peruse our other reviews below.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- The Lure
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
- Other People
- Swiss Army Man