The Free World Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

What could have been an intriguing film-noir premise loses its spark as Jason Lew imagines the romance between an ex-con and a suspected murderess.

Remember when Boyd Holbrook was just a scrawny young thing? Born and raised in Kentucky, he did some modeling, took acting classes and sent a screenplay off to Gus Van Sant, who gave him a minor role in “Milk,” launching an acting career that’s bound to lead him, sooner or later, to play a blockbuster comic-book character. In the meantime, Holbrook is proving what a capable performer he can be, turning up in indies such as “The Free World,” where it’s hard to believe the tortured soul with the prison-scarred brow, “Deadwood” goatee and haunted eyes was ever a child. Which is the effect writer-director Jason Lew (who wrote Van Sant’s “Restless”) intends with this well-meaning, well-acted but otherwise clumsily executed parable about second chances, whose damaged-goods pairing of Holbrook and Elisabeth Moss ensures at least a small release.

Having packed on considerable heft since last we saw him (in the $10,071-earning “Little Accidents”), Holbrook plays Mo Lundy, a Louisiana meathead who spent an unspecified amount of time in jail for a heinous crime he didn’t commit (something unspeakable involving little girls, for which he was incarcerated at age 17). Finally cleared and let back into society, he remains imprisoned by the judgment of his peers — the sole exception being Octavia Spencer’s beatific Linda, who gives Mo a job at a local animal shelter, where he demonstrates just how gentle he truly is while bonding with the penned-up strays.

The concussion-heavy message here is that Mo (who converted to Islam while behind bars, where he changed his name to Mohamed) identifies with the abused dogs — including one beaten to the brink of death by a police officer. It should be noted that no matter where Mo goes, there are cops nearby to hassle him, taunting him with expository tidbits that we presumably need to know about his past: that the other inmates called him “the Cyclops” for tearing out his cellmate’s eyeball, that he hammed a prison guard into a coma, and so on.

Drawling like a character out of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” this particular cop (Stephen L. Grush) demonstrates the film’s simple-minded notion that the so-called “good guys” are anything but, while murderers (whether actual or falsely accused) are all too often misunderstood. Certainly, that could be said of both Mo and the officer’s wife, Doris (Moss), who returns to the shelter a day or two later covered in blood. Struggling with the decision of whether or not to get involved, Mo ultimately decides to take her back to his place — a low-rent apartment with no furniture, apart from a bare mattress on which he can’t bring himself to sleep (preferring the closet).

After a painfully clumsy first reel — one in which the camera positioning, the editing and even the music undermine the sense of authenticity the movie so desperately seeks — “The Free World” finally kicks into gear the morning Doris wakes up. The movie, which until now has struggled trying to guide audiences into Holbrook’s mindset, suddenly switches to Doris’ p.o.v. (later, she even narrates a few passages), not only giving audiences a more immediate handle on the situation, but also suggesting how much more effective it might have been had Lew set empathy aside in favor of a more ambiguous film-noir approach, where neither character is sure how far he or she can trust the other. If only he had found a way to open the film with this scene, as a disoriented woman tries to understand what she’s doing in a potential abductor’s apartment, scanning the room for the nearest sharp implement she can use to escape the unfamiliar situation.

Doris’ panic in turn triggers a skirmish as Mo tries to explain himself, and the next thing they know, two police officers are banging on the door in response to a domestic disturbance call. With that, Lew springs the film’s single weirdest scene, as Doris — who clearly fears cops more than she does her potential abductor — opts to clamber into his oversized dog carrier and hide out there while the police search the apartment. But there’s an important difference between a movie in which characters constantly find themselves holding their breath and one gripping enough to inspire the same behavior in audiences, and “The Free World” repeatedly falls short in the suspense department.

Still, from this point on, it’s clear we’re dealing with two individuals who share a dislike for law enforcement and, for reasons that will soon be made clear, might be better off making a run for Mexico. Enter another exposition-spouting police character, this one a Korean-American detective (Sung Kang) who predicts that it’s only a matter of time before Mo’s temporarily suppressed violent nature makes its next appearance. Push him far enough, and that could well be true — which, of course, is precisely the situation a character-first screenwriter like Lew wants to see unfold.

What else do you expect from a kid thrown into “gladiator school,” as Spencer’s character calls the prison sentence that brought out Mo’s violent streak? When it comes to actual brawling, Holbrook’s freshly bulked-up screen presence (which transforms him from skinny indie waif to someone capable of landing roles once ear-marked for the likes of Garrett Hedlund and the Hemsworth brothers) makes him a force to be reckoned with, and the film’s ridiculous final stretch follows through on the idea that he’s willing to become exactly the kind of monster society believes him to be in order to protect Doris from the real predators lying in wait.

Via its semi-ironic title, “The Free World” implies that even on the outside (that is, released from prison), a character like Mo remains an outsider — a point that might have resonated even more with minority actors in either or both of the lead roles. With foxy red hair and raccoon-smeared mascara, Moss plays Doris like a scared little girl, a fragile match for Holbrook’s tough-before-his-time protector. Not that the chemistry has a chance to percolate in the awkwardly lensed drama.

Considering the potential offered by the pic’s Louisiana locations, it’s an opportunity missed that so little of the setting’s hothouse atmosphere come through, especially in the botched bayou chase that serves as the pic’s ludicrous climax. Likewise, one can’t help but feel the actors’ best work has failed to register, as if either the cameras were in the wrong place or the best takes weren’t used. Humanist intentions aside, though Lew’s redemption-themed romance preaches forgiveness, it’s a cruel fact that the film community seldom offers newcomers such magnanimous second chances.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Free World'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2016. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

An Untitled Entertainment, Great Point Media production. Produced by Laura Rister. Executive producers, Rene Besson, Rob Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve, Emilie Georges, Nick Shumaker.

Crew

Directed, written by Jason Lew. Camera (color), Berenice Eveno; editor, Dominic LaPerriere; music, Tim Hecker; production designer, Bernardo Trujillo; set decorator, Monique Champagne; costume designer, John Harris; sound, Richard Schexnayder, Rachel Grissom; supervising sound editor, Anthony Vanchure; re-recording mixer, Tim Hoogenakker; visual effects, DJ Shea; special effects coordinator, David Nash; animal wrangler, Sid Yost; stunt coordinator, Chuck Picerni; assistant director, Ardy Brent Carlson; casting, Rich Delia.

With

Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss, Sung Kang, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen L. Grush, Seth Gabel, Dane Rhodes, Fred Weler, Octavia Spencer.

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