Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer are exceptional as always, and I felt the latter deserved far more screen time, yet perhaps the film’s most pleasant surprise is the showcase it provides for Boyd Holbrook. An early scene sees Holbrook’s protagonist, ex con Mohamed “Mo” Lundy, presumed guilty and harassed by a stranger despite the former’s early release from prison literally being due to his newly proven innocence, signalling that viewers should resist making quick judgments of these characters. The criminal justice system becomes a central case study for how institutionalisation affects individuals, and I was pleased to find that THE FREE WORLD subverted my expectations by illuminating the depths of Mo’s character; it’s easy to imagine him being depicted much more superficially in a different film, for instance, Holbrook’s later role in Logan would highlight his adeptness at simply portraying a menacing villain. However, Lew’s screenplay carefully considers traits such as Mo’s conversion to Islam during his sentence and uses these to convey both how the experience shaped him, and how desperate he is to resist being defined by it.
Meanwhile, Moss’ Doris feels similarly trapped by her abusive marriage, and as alluded to above, the actress once again demonstrates why she’s so enthralling to watch. Even in early wordless scenes, a simple look from Doris suggests years of fear, pain and pent-up fury, which longtime fans of Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale will instantly recognise. As Mo and Doris’ friendship blossoms THE FREE WORLD assumes a slow, pensive pace that will likely leave some viewers restless, though I felt that the omnipresent buzz of Tim Hecker’s score and some beautiful cinematography by Bérénice Eveno compensated for a lack of narrative momentum. Nevertheless, I was curious to see whether the film would eventually adopt a greater sense of urgency, and while it undeniably did in its final forty minutes, this unfortunately took the form of generic action-thriller sequences which completely removed the subtlety I’d previously enjoyed. Similarly, after initially being impressed at how Lew had cast Mo and Doris’ relationship as a method of platonically reclaiming their own identities, I was frustrated when a romance between them was abruptly and awkwardly inserted. Aside from the romantic elements the plot’s conclusion is largely satisfying, but it ultimately fails to justify taking a visceral drama and distorting it into a different genre.
THE FREE WORLD features thoughtful performances at its centre and is refreshing when it allows the characters and audience to simply consider them. It’s plausible that the film’s problematic final third is intended to represent the lengths people are willing to go to escape marginalisation, but an earlier foreshadowing or mention of this idea would probably have avoided such a jarring tonal shift.
Watching this film reminded me of the nuanced interplay between institutions and individuals depicted in Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo, and I’d consider the latter essential viewing for anyone intrigued by the themes discussed above. By contrast, once it abandons its character-driven approach THE FREE WORLD loses its most interesting aspect and sadly becomes forgettable viewing.
THE FREE WORLD IS RELEASED ON DVD THROUGH EAGLE ENTERTAINMENT ON MARCH 21.