'The Free World': Sundance Review

Watchable leads elevate a downbeat story that takes its time to ignite.

Elisabeth Moss and Boyd Holbrook star as damaged outsiders drawn together in writer-director Jason Lew's Louisiana-set redemption drama.

Liberty is a relative concept in The Free World, a soft-boiled Southern noir in which the theme of cages, confinement and abuse is countered by redemptive notes of spirituality and human connection. Those whispers of hope almost risk going unheard amid all the dour solemnity and dread of writer-director Jason Lew's moody first feature. But the uneven drama remains reasonably engrossing thanks to affecting performances from Boyd Holbrook and Elisabeth Moss, playing strangers whose respective experience of violence gives them a soulful bond. Whether that will be enough to yield much of a theatrical life seems doubtful.

After starting out as an actor, Lew made an unpromising move into screenwriting with Gus Van Sant's maudlin 2011 teenage cancer romance Restless. The preciousness of that film is mercifully absent from this tougher take on two people finding an unexpected anchor in one another. And although not every plot element feels altogether fresh or convincing, there's enough integrity in the drama to keep you invested in its damaged protagonists.

With the brooding, faraway gaze and barely audible mumble of a haunted man, Holbrook plays Mo Lundy, an ex-con who was put away at age 15 for a crime he apparently didn't commit. In order to survive, he became capable of such notorious brutality against fellow inmates and guards that even the Aryan brotherhood were afraid of him. He eventually renounced that violence and embraced Islam while inside, adopting the name Mohamed. Released from Louisiana State Penitentiary, he works at an animal shelter, sharing the words of the prophet with mistreated dogs. But his local fame as the "Beast of Angola" tends to follow him around.

"Bury the past, or it'll bury you, boy," advises Mo's nurturing boss at the shelter, Linda (Octavia Spencer), who appears familiar with the challenges of post-incarceration readjustment. But that's not easy when every mean cop eyes him with hostile suspicion. One such skeevy lawman (Stephen L. Grush) drops off a dog barely clinging to its life; the next night, the cop's traumatized wife, Doris (Moss), turns up at the shelter, battered and covered in blood.

In a decision that at first really only makes sense in a movie-ish kind of way, Mo takes the unconscious Doris back to his bare-bones apartment to recover. Acting more out of instinct than reason, he gives her protection and asks no questions, even after police start searching for her, and the threat to his continuing freedom becomes clear.

Any writer who puts a released felon to work at a place called the Second Hope Animal Shelter is unlikely to be accused of subtlety. However, the rawness and hurt in Holbrook's performance make the character more involving than his signposted path to purification might indicate.There's also a pleasing give and take in his scenes with Spencer.

Moss is an imperfect fit for the role, but she's sympathetic and compelling as a woman initially out of her head as she flees violence. Doris wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings and immediately goes into aggressive self-protection mode before slowly coming around to trust her rescuer. She's openly curious as she watches Mo pray, and it makes sense that she would respond to this man seeking to reshape his life around the religious concept of surrender.

While the glowering, cloud-covered sky motif is a little obvious, cinematographer Berenice Eveno gives the film a cool, clean look, with pockets of warm light breaking the sweaty gloom. This is not the easygoing, hospitable South but a flat, unforgiving landscape in which distrust seems to be most people's default setting. Lew refrains from straying too deep into Southern Gothic territory, however, instead letting Tim Hecker's atmospheric electronic score point to the escalating dangers.

Displaying a chemistry that strengthens over time, Holbrook and Moss make the intensity of Mo and Doris' attachment believable even as the romance remains hesitant. That sense of two people bound together, placing their faith in one another while largely remaining strangers, gives the film a steady emotional pull. The couple's relationship evolves first in intimate seclusion and then as fugitives in the poorly handled high-stakes late action, which explodes into violence.

If Lew doesn't yet have the command to modulate the suspense to maximum effect, the sensitivity he brings to his story helps smooth over some of its weaknesses.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Great Point Media, Untitled Entertainment
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss, Octavia Spencer, Sung Kang, Waleed Zuaiter, Stephen L. Grush, Seth Gabriel, Dane Rhodes, Fred Weller

Director-screenwriter: Jason Lew
Producers: Laura Rister
Executive producers: Rene BessonRobi Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve, Emilie Georges, Nick Shumaker

Director of photography: Berenice Eveno
Production designer: Bernardo Trujillo

Costume designer: John Harris
Music: Tim Hecker

Editor: Dominic LaPerriere
Casting: Rich Delia

Sales: WMECAA, Memento

Not rated, 101 minutes.