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Freedomland wants to be many things-too many things

Freedomland (rated R for language and some violent content) is a difficult movie, in ways both good and, more often than not, bad: difficult to categorize, difficult to like, difficult to watch-yet also difficult to dismiss quickly. (Freedomland is also difficult to listen to-the script features a near unending string of heavy profanities.)

The screenplay, an adaptation by Richard Price of his own novel, is loosely based on the 1994 Susan Smith case in South Carolina. Like Ms. Smith, Julianne Moore plays a single mother who makes an incendiary claim that both activates and divides her community. As Brenda Martin, Ms. Moore wanders into a hospital emergency room (in fictional Dempsy, N.J.) one night in a daze, with bloody cuts on her hands. Brenda claims to have just survived a carjacking by a black man who ripped her from her vehicle and sped away.

When detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives at the hospital, he asks Brenda to go over the sequence of events again, and this time she drops a bombshell: Brenda's 4-year-old son was asleep in the back seat of the car when it was stolen. In a frantic search for the missing child, the news spreads quickly: A white boy has been kidnapped by a black man.

Freedomland wants to be many things-too many things. It's part thriller, part murder mystery, part racial drama, part psychological study, and part media exposé. The pieces don't fit together well. The film shifts wildly in tone, pacing, and, seemingly, intent as the story proceeds, and, as the true nature of the crime becomes clearer, the movie becomes downright miserable at times.

But for all of the problems with Freedomland, much of it is oddly compelling. This is thanks largely to the persuasive work done by Mr. Jackson and Ms. Moore (although the latter goes way over the top in a couple of scenes), and to some unexpected spiritual depth. In two fascinating and pivotal scenes, Mr. Jackson's upright cop, who states clearly that he believes in God, offers up monologues on God's will and God's grace.