Jason Lew presents a bleak world of second chances and doomed romance in impact drama The Free World. Lew’s feature gives a Bonnie and Clyde twist to the “Romeo and Juliet” story and those willing to overlook some obvious symbolism will find a feature rich in subtext and striking performances. Featuring the always phenomenal Elisabeth Moss and a breakout performance from Boyd Halbrook as a pair of social outcasts who’ve found each other (and themselves) on the wrong side of the law – one an ex-con, the other the (ex-)wife of a violent cop – The Free World explores the spiritual poetry of redemption and religion through the lens of besting your former shadow. To quote Hemingway, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility to being superior to your former self.” Again, this idea of self-transcendence isn’t necessarily broached with a fistful of subtlety but the thematic elements are bolstered by the two convincing, whirlwind performances at its center.
Halbrook plays Muhammed, a rehabilitated convict recently free from prison, with a kind of hushed boiling fervor. He’s found employment at the local animal shelter working under a kindly and encouraging boss (Octavia Spencer) but the local police force won’t so easily let Muhammed forget his violent past.
In this regard, The Free World proves timely to this age of true crime comebacks and Making a Murderer‘s standing place hold on the populist zeitgeist de jour, since Muhammed has just been exonerated. Though cleared of murders he didn’t commit, he still can’t scrub away the violent mantle he took up inside, the one that earned him the nickname Cyclops. When a good ol’ boy with no scruples brings a dog into his shelter half-beaten to death, a fissure erupts in Muhammed’s life. Not soon after, a battered woman named Doris (Moss) arrives on his doorstep, bloody, beaten and getting for help. Things complicate quickly and Muhammed finds his new freedom almost immediately threatened and Halbrook plays those internal bargaining notes to perfection.
There’s also a fierceness to Halbrook throughout The Free World; a raw, thoroughly emotional, animalistic side that peeks out in pivotal moment to thrash like an uncaged creature. These moments of “freeing the beat” serve to punctuate the quiet ferocity that dominates the majority of Halbrook’s performance and gives depth and complexity to this man trying so hard to break away from his past sins.
Unchained, Muhammed is scary to behold and Lew manages a few stand-out violent moments that really hone in on the fierceness of his character. Being unfamiliar with Halbrook prior to this work (he has costar credits scattered from Milk to the Liam Neeson-starrer Run All Night), he truly pops off the screen. Playing against him, Moss is predictably great. She the wounded animal to his wolf in sheep’s clothing; quick to fend for herself but eager for a tender touch. The chemistry between Moss and Halbrook boils off the screen.
From a technical aspect, The Free World is a crisp and visually thoughtful picture to behold. Cinematographer Bérénice Eveno casts light symbolically, drawing shadows in early scene that reflect the reclusive, introverted nature of characters that break to natural light that simply pour over the scenery. Again, it’s not subtle work but it’s all part of casting a tempting spell sure to entrance anyone game for a charged, heartfelt doomed romance.
CONCLUSION: Elisabeth Moss and Boyd Halbrook drive ‘The Free World’ into impressively fertile dramatic territory. There’s some thematic kitchen sinking – romance! violence! redemption! religion! – but director Jason Lew ultimately weaves most everything into one impressive and immersive wallop.