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Review: The Free World (Sundance)

The Free World (Sundance)
01.23.2016
7 10

PLOT: A former inmate (Boyd Holbrook) who's been exonerated and is trying to adjust to life on the outside becomes involved with an abused woman (Elisabeth Moss) following a violent incident.

REVIEW: It feels like there are two kinds of Sundance movies. There are the movies like WHIPLASH, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, DOPE and this year's OTHER PEOPLE that are primed for crossover success. And then, there are the movies like THE FREE WORLD, which is so unrelentingly bleak that it's hard to imagine it ever playing to anything beyond a niche audience. However, that admittedly small audience will be rewarded with a well-crafted movie that's certainly not an easy watch but is also extremely compelling if given half-a-chance.

NARCOS's Boyd Holbrook is excellent as our enigmatic hero. Audiences intrigued by shows like Making a Murderer or Serial will be intrigued by the character, who spent several years in Angola prison for horrific crime he didn't commit. Being thrown to the wolves, he had no choice but to become a kind of animal, being an inmate so feared the other convicts called him “Cyclops” due to a story that he kept a former opponent's eyeball as a souvenir. Now that he's been exonerated, he has to leave his violent habits behind, with his only refuge in the outside world being his work at a shelter for dogs (run by a sympathetic Octavia Spencer).

His care for these battered animals helps to rehabilitate him and leads to his involvement with the similarly abused Doris – played by the always excellent Elisabeth Moss – although he pays a price for being a white knight. The contrast between the two is interesting, with their common ground being that through circumstance they're both prisoners in their own way.

Moss and Holbrook play-off each other beautifully. Holbrook's portrait of a very decent man hardened by years in what a character calls “gladiator school” is incredible. When a twist later in the film results in his “Cyclops” persona being unleashed, the transition is shocking, with him playing the side of the character like a feral animal.

As for Moss, she's been excelling in indie work for awhile now. She's always been one to tackle difficult parts and this is another in the vein of her recent QUEEN OF EARTH. It's a realistic, gritty performance in a hard-edged film many will not be able to dig-in to, but her performance is remarkable.

Written and directed by first-timer Jason Lew (who co-wrote the Gus Van Sant flop RESTLESS), THE FREE WORLD has a few issues, such as a jarring transition from a character-based drama into more violent territory in the last act. However, this transition serves a purpose, in that when the violence occurs, it feels all-the-more shocking due to the fact that's it's (mostly) unexpected. Despite what's probably a modest budget, technically the film is first-rate, with good cinematography by Bérénice Eveno and an excellent musical score by Tim Hecker.

While it's a tough movie, THE FREE WORLD is good, challenging fare that should resonate with indie fans. It's not an easy movie to watch, but it's a very worthwhile, often affecting piece of work.

Source: JoBlo.com

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