“The Free World” is the tale of a released convict who struggles to find love and peace in his newly gained freedom. That sounds like the premise for promising TV show — after all, “Rectify” has already been covering that territory for four seasons — but first-time writer-director Jason Lew constructs his movie with the hallmarks of an exhausting pilot that falls short of making the case for a full season.
Muhammad Lundy (Boyd Holbrook) works at an animal shelter after his recent tenure at Louisiana’s Angola prison. (If you ever forget that he’s essentially trading in one caged environment for another, this is a film that will repeatedly remind you.) His place of employment soon becomes the refuge of Doris (Elisabeth Moss), who shows up after hours with blood-covered hands in search of her recently euthanized dog. Recognizing her frightened demeanor and vulnerable emotional state, Muhammad “rescues” Doris, bringing her to his sparsely-furnished house even as she’s the subject of a local police investigation.
The various forces threatening Muhammad’s fragile post-incarceration existence is the first indication that Lew is needlessly layering this story with artificial drama. A parade of supporting players succumb to a combination of stern chest-pumping and a Southern accent as a kind of shortcut to villainy, whether it’s Doris’ husband at the outset, the police chief bent on apprehending or any other male law enforcement personnel that crosses Muhammad’s path.
Much like the various characters from Muhammad’s past relay his rumored prison exploits with great dread and import, the ambient drone of the score often suffocates the natural evolution of our understanding of who Muhammad is. Occasionally, when composer Tim Hecker pulls back and lets a shimmer of overlapping arpeggios shine through, it’s an indication that this film is emotionally satisfying when it gives its characters some breathing room.
As Muhammad and Doris begin to navigate their way toward mutual understanding, Lew matches Muhammad’s spartan living arrangements with an inelegant mess of a fight scene. But the pair’s evening conversations and their eventual move to a nature-laden locale give an indication of where a better-paced film might end up were it not forced through a half a film of languid conversation and nervous hair-pulling.
One welcome respite from the film’s opening drabness is Waleed Zuiater as Khalil, a rare figure from Muhammad’s past who has some sympathy for the young man’s situation. As Lew becomes less interested in keeping the audience guessing about Muhammad’s circumstances, Zuiater’s performance provides a counterpoint to the unrelenting dourness of the couple he’s shepherding to safety.
Holbrook does his best to bring the depth to a character whose rival motivations never seem to come from an organic place. And even as Muhammad balances simmering rage and a protective instinct, he and Doris are continually framed as broken victims. The endless string of tortured allusions to animals in captivity are continual roadblocks to the audience’s acceptance of these people as…well, people (despite Moss’ best efforts when her character is finally allowed to speak in complete thoughts).
It’s hard to have a cosmic love story when the two characters involved are defined exclusively by their damaged parts. The film cherry-picks the elements of Muhammad and Doris that suit whatever genre the film pivots towards next. This is a movie that features the bombastic and the beaten-down without finding much to build on in between.
“The Free World” closes with what would have been a touching epilogue, had it not come in the immediate wake of a tone-deaf climax that co-opts national and international tragedies for momentary shock value. Nestled somewhere within this story is a redemption tale that prizes thoughtful explorations of identity and guilt. Sadly, it’s buried underneath a messy human drama that never quite figures out how much value to give a human life.
“The Free World” is now open in New York and available on VOD. It will open in Los Angeles on Friday, September 30.