Actor and writer Jason Lew, the screenwriter behind Gus Van Sant‘s “Restless,” makes his feature directorial debut with “The Free World,” a sometimes-curious picture that takes on a big story with an intimate execution. “Curious” only because “The Free World” ends up in a place vastly different from where it starts, genre-hopping and taking unexpected turns. At times it feels as though the story might exceed the scope of the film, but it manages to stretch to contain it, and pushes the boundaries of what a “Sundance film” might be.
The film opens with a look inside the very small world of Mo (Boyd Holbrook). He’s a recently released felon working in an animal shelter for Linda (Octavia Spencer), who seems to have knowledge of “the inside” as well. He has a sparse life, an apartment with no furniture and no car. As we come to find out through snippets of conversation, Mo is formerly Martin Lundy, exonerated for a heinous crime he didn’t commit, dumped back out into the real world. Locked up as a teen, Martin garnered a violent reputation for himself in Angola Prison, but that’s a persona he’s trying to shed. Martin is now Mo, short for Mohammed, and Mohammed is a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and finding solace in his religion. But his past is never far away.
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Early on, a bloodied, beaten dog is dumped at the shelter’s doorstep, left there by a raging cop with his crying wife in tow. The dog doesn’t make it, and a few nights later, Mo finds the wife, Doris (Elisabeth Moss), at the shelter, crazed, hysterical, covered in blood, and crying for her dog. For lack of other options, and probably from a deep naïveté, Mo takes her in.
This choice predicates the domino effect of events that occur after it, and “The Free World” sort of demands that you buy into it, even if in retrospect you might question why Mo did what he did and why. It becomes clear that Doris killed her husband, possibly as the result of an abusive relationship — this is indicated but not spelled out. And as the two grow closer, it becomes an increasingly tenuous situation. Mo’s clearly desperate for the connection and starts to make some extremely bad decisions in order to protect the oddly innocent and vulnerable Doris.
At this point, “The Free World” veers from an intimate, issue-driven character drama, right into a Southern-fried lovers-on-the-run action thriller, a “Bonnie and Clyde” story with unmistakeable shades of “Thelma and Louise.” The switch is a little jarring, and therefore the early choices get thrown into stark relief — when the stakes are amped so high, the preceding decisions and character motivations get thrown under the microscope.
What remains consistent is Holbrook’s embodied and magnetic performance as Mo. He brings a strong physicality to the role, whether it’s in smaller, delicate gestures such as worrying at his prayer beads or in the bloodthirsty violence to which he eventually returns. Despite Holbrook’s excellence throughout the film, it’s sometimes hard to ignore the nagging concern that the story we originally set out to explore — the life of a newly freed man, unequipped to deal with the real world — might have been a bit more compelling had it been given room to breathe outside of the twists of a high-stakes plot.
With all due respect to Moss’ performance, the Doris character doesn’t work at all, because she’s vastly underwritten. It’s clear that the choice was made to suggest, rather than spell out, her situation, and that’s a respectable one, but it sacrifices so much that we could use to understand her. In her current state, Doris is a complete mystery who comes off as looney tunes rather than as a broken woman with nowhere else to turn. She quickly disassociates from her crime and latches onto Mo, asking him light and playful questions about himself just a couple of days after upending her life and committing a violent crime. The only thing we know about Doris is her complete and utter devotion to Mo, which goes entirely unexplored or tested in any way. There’s just not enough of her character on screen for Doris to be fully fleshed out and plausible. At times you might even wonder if she’s a figment of his imagination, so pure and unerring she is in her immediate trust and love for him.
“The Free World” stumbles in finding a conclusion, resulting in two bungled endings, plus one that gets it right for the most part. Some of the metaphors are painted in too broad strokes — the animal shelter/prison allegory tends slightly toward the cheesy at moments. Aesthetically, it’s a gorgeous creation, lovingly, luminously photographed by cinematographer Bérénice Eveno, with a throbbing thrum of a score and sound design that creates an ethereal tension that drifts throughout. While there are some missteps in the story, there’s a lot to admire in “The Free World,” particularly in what is sure to be a breakout role for Holbrook. [B-]