Review: 'The Free World' Starring Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss, And Octavia Spencer

 NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. The Free World is in theaters now.

What does it mean to be free? This question of freedom and liberty is at the messy center of Jason Lew's grim, low-watt crime noir, The Free World.  But it's not the only question, and when veering away into more generic thriller territory the film loses much of its immediacy and impact, although powerful lead performances by Boyd Holbrook and Elisabeth Moss prove as redemptive as the journey embarked on by its lead characters.

Lew, whose career got off to a dubious start writing Gus Van Sant's Restless, paints an uneven picture of absolution and vengeance, beginning as a "miscarriage of justice" drama that will draw comparisons to Making a Murderer. Interestingly, it doesn't stay that way, and some of the sharp turns it takes lead to unsatisfying results. Holbrook gives a commanding performance as Mo, an ex-con unjustly convicted of a heinous crime that affected a small community. Released when evidence proved his innocence, freedom hasn't bought him anything but scorn and hatred from the locals, who still believe in his guilt. He works at a dog shelter run by his friend Linda (Octavia Spencer), who recognizes what he's going through, and defends him when the local cops come making trouble.

But Mo is also a Muslim, his name short for Muhammad. It's something he learned on the inside, where he was known as "the Cyclops" for the brutal way he would inflict pain on his victims. Islam cured him of his savage urges, turning him into a peaceful warrior...or perhaps it just buried those urges a bit deeper. The cracks around his armor begin to form when a power-mad cop leaves a bloodied, beaten dog at their door. His wife, Doris (Moss), is upset and frantic in the passenger seat. That night she shows up at the shelter, crazed and confused, covered in blood and screaming for her dog.  Unsure of what to do, he make the decision to take her home where she can recover, and it's a choice which leads to cascading events that threaten his hard-won freedom.

After a tenuous start; Doris doesn't know why she's woken up at Mo's home and if he hurt her during the night; a bond begins to form between the two of them. While his decision to help her to begin with may be curious, it soon becomes clear what the thrust of their relationship truly is: the desperate need for human connection. It becomes apparent that she has done something terrible to her husband, possibly out of self defense, while Mo has been in the prison system since his teenage years. The only thing he knows is how to exist in a cell. It can be seen in how he moves, crouched as if he's trying to stay invisible in the corner of a prison lock-up. He's suspicious and unfamiliar around women. The two find connection in their mutual need.

What begins as a quiet, character-driven story of one man trying to break free from the shackles of his past flips the switch into gritty, down 'n dirty action thriller as Mo and Doris make a hasty run from the law. Individually, both halves of the film are impressive in their own ways. The latter half drives forward with palpable tension, especially as Mo's more volatile personality begins to reveal itself. But taken as a whole there is a complete disconnect between the decisions made early on and the actions they take later. It also doesn't help that Doris remains something of a cypher throughout. Perhaps if we had seen more of the turmoil she experienced prior to first encountering Mo we would have had more of an understanding why she needs this connection with him.

On the other hand, Mo is a fascinating character throughout, and he grows more interesting because of the small details Lew reveals. From his sparse apartment, his devotion to prayer, down to his love of helpless animals, Mo would have been interesting to follow as he made choices that either confirmed or contradicted the opinions others have of him. So it's a little disappointing that the film goes in a different direction entirely that doesn't require as much insight.

Rating: 3 out of 5