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The Free World comes along at an interesting time in our pop culture. The plot revolves around a man recently released from a lengthy prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Those familiar with Netflix’s Making a Murderer documentary are likely well-versed in the saga of Steven Avery, who went through a similar situation. Both that doc and Jason Lew’s directorial debut paint a picture of what that sentence can do to a person, even after he is “free.” It’s here where the movie finds its center, where it holds firm until a misguided second half sends The Free World towards a more violent, albeit less-interesting conclusion.
We meet Mohammad (Boyd Holbrook) at an animal shelter, the only place where he feels he can be open with anyone or anything. He puts dogs’ fears to rest by being with them, and as a man who knows what it’s like on the inside, he can sympathize with these neglected or abused animals. He abandoned his birth name, Martin, after converting to Islam, prays in peace to his God, lives a quiet life in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and finds he’s only able to sleep inside his closet. It’s the confined space that he grew so accustomed to during his prison stint that has shaped him into what he is now — lost in freedom.
Through a couple of violent circumstances, Doris (Elisabeth Moss) enters into his life. Mohammad’s two-bit thief transformed into a rage-filled inmate after his false imprisonment, and he can relate with Doris’ plight as the wife of an abusive cop. Soon they find themselves tied to each other after a crime is committed. It’s an uncertain, uneasy alliance at first, but after time, the two become friendly, and soon after that, well, you know. Mohammad knows he’ll go back to prison for aiding and abetting, but decides to help her.
Once someone is labeled a “murderer” (or “racist” or “sexist” or other “-ists,” but that’s another story), it’s hard to shake that tag even after you’re found innocent. The local cops still give Mohammad a second look, unable to accept the reality because they’re too blinded by the past. One such cop is Detective Shin (Fast and Furious’ Sung Kang, doing his damnedest to pull off a Southern accent), who is convinced Mohammad has something to do with Doris and her crime. The only person in Mohammad’s corner is his boss, Linda (Octavia Spencer, in a thankless role), but not even she can defend him from the law. The law is king.
It’s during the first half of the movie, set mostly at Mohammad’s, when The Free World shines. The chemistry between Holbrook and Moss is undeniable, even under their characters’ intense, closed-in environment. They confide in one another, both prisoners for long periods of time in their respective ways, and it’s during these discussions where we learn more about Mohammad’s embracing of Islam. When asked why he didn’t turn to Christianity during his prison sentence, he responds that the religion demands him to confess while he has nothing to confess to. Instead, he chooses to “surrender” to other teachings. It’s a nice twist on the Southern-man-finding-Gawd trope that seems to find its way into these movies.
There is a brief respite from the pain and suffering where we find the leads apart from each other, but both are smiling for the same reasons. It’s the most profound moment of the movie and an instance where Lew shows more by telling less (aided by an unobtrusive score courtesy of musician Tim Hecker). In their smiles, we gather their sense of hope for a brighter tomorrow, one in which they are both finally free from the eyes of society and the arms of violence. Alas, some people are doomed, driven to such a fate by unfair hands. So it goes, and it’s the final moment before The Free World decides to take a trip into a well-worn territory.
This is when the movie decides to tackle border control, shady villains, kidnapping, and superhero-level violence in a span of a half-hour. Animal shelter/prison facility parallels become too heavy-handed, and performances packed with emotion give way to on-the-lam clichés. To top it all off, we get the most Hollywood-ized ending to an indie movie I can recall seeing in years. Nothing more frustrating than a movie that doesn’t nail its landing, and sadly The Free World falls into that category.
The Free World works when dealing with the themes found within its title. When we have our freedoms taken away, how difficult is it to get them back? Is it wholly possible? Somewhere along the way, Lew decided such a story wasn’t compelling enough. Mohammad’s boss tells him at one point, “You bury the past, or it’ll bury you.” Jason Lew surrenders to the past, and while it doesn’t completely bury The Free World, it drops a good amount of dirt on it.