Review: The Free World (Lew, 2016) – Sundance 2016

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Who’s seen Mad Men and hasn’t been at least a little transfixed by Peggy and, by extension, the actress who portrays her, Elisabeth Moss? (By the way, did you know she was in Girl, Interrupted? I didn’t either!) Moss is no newcomer to Sundance; we first noted her in the 2014 lineup with two films, Listen Up Philip and The One I Love. But, despite her prolificacy since Mad Men, The Free World is the first we’ve seen of her on the big screen; if her more-than-competent performance is any indication, I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Director Jason Lew‘s ambitious but unfulfilled debut about the romance between an exonerated ex-convict and the battered wife of a police officer leans heavily on the acting chops of its two leads. Boyd Holbrook stars opposite Moss as Mohamed, the former inmate who now works at an animal shelter under the kindly direction of a woman who seems to have seen some hard times herself (Octavia Spencer). As prison monster turned devout Muslim and gentle carer of abandoned dogs, Holbrook gives us a convincing, moving blend of desperate spirituality, bottled rage, and a survivor’s brand of empathy.

One evening, a woman shows up at the animal shelter after hours looking for her dog. Mo recognizes her as the redhead who had accompanied her belligerent husband the day before as he dropped off a creature that he had beaten to within an inch of its life. Now the woman, Doris, looks little better than her pet. Hysterical, she faints in a bloody heap on the concrete. Mo, still suspected and intensely disliked by the police, sees no option but to bring her home with him. Doris is petrified when she finally comes to in a strange apartment, alone with a man she doesn’t remember meeting. But Mo approaches her as he would one of his shelter charges, eventually winning her calm, if not yet her trust.

What the audience has already guessed is soon confirmed by a news report Mo catches on TV at work (he doesn’t have one at home)–Doris’s husband has been found murdered in his home, and the police have initiated an area-wide hunt for his missing wife. Law enforcement is soon sniffing at Mo’s door, and it’s not long before the two take to the road, bringing nothing with them but their budding love.

As you might suspect by now, the plot and dialogue tend toward the cheesy. Though Holbrook and Moss do what they can, they’re not able to rescue the film from its sentimental muckety muck, which comes on thicker and thicker as the romance progresses. And they’re not much helped by a pair of mawkish voiceovers bookending the film. Action-filled suspense helps to cut through the treacle but also introduces its own tired formulas. Still, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat with dreadful anticipation as the couple careened toward what could only be a tragic end.

In its way, though, The Free World is a crowd pleaser. It gives us what we, beneath our sophistication and cynicism, secretly want but what we never dare to hope for, especially in an indie drama: a pure, uncomplicated love; a physically strong but emotionally gentle man; a sweet woman in need of healing; a series of villains that are easy to hate; and an ending we can walk away from.

So we exit the theater, still high on the picture’s coursing emotions (the word “intensity” was batted around a lot at the Q&A). But, giddy and dazed, we also know–again, secretly–that it wasn’t what we wanted after all.

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