Sometimes in life, the hardest thing for some to accept is change. That sentiment is the foundation for this well-intentioned story of a former prison tough, Mohammad, (Boyd Holbrook) formerly Martin, who is trying to turn his life around after a long stretch in Angola for a crime that he didn’t commit.
While in prison, Mo was known as ‘Cyclops,’ a name he acquired when he disfigured a former cellmate by removing one of his eyes with a spoon during a fight. While he is trying to move on after serving his time, there are many in the law enforcement community who remember him for the young, violent teen he was and remind him every chance they get.
Working in an animal shelter, Mo is a steady and calming voice displaying great tenderness and compassion for the dogs under his care. Trying to keep his head down and do his job, his patience is put to the test when an abusive detective drop off a badly abused dog, which was obviously beaten by his master, much to the horror of his frightened wife, Doris (Elisabeth Moss) Full of rage and burning for revenge, Mo is calmed down by his protective supervisor, Linda (Octavia Spencer). Understanding that Mo has a huge target on his back, she gives him space to work through his challenges adjusting to his new life on the outside.
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After the abused dog is put to sleep, an obviously distraught Mo finds himself in precarious condition when Rose comes to the shelter looking for her wounded pet. In her excitement, she passes out and Mo, already on parole, knows that he can’t be found with the incapacitated woman so he takes her to his home. Unbeknownst to him, she murdered her husband, we assume, in self-defense but Mo can’t take any chances.
Much like the care and compassion that he displays for the stray dogs, it is apparent that Rose is also in need of a large dose of kindness as well and once he gains her trust, she humanizes him and teaches him the value of friendship. While others see a convicted felon, Rose is drawn to his kind heart underneath his gruff exterior.
Lew’s screenplay is anchored by strong lead performances by both Holbrook and Moss, who display winning chemistry as a couple thrown together by unfortunate circumstances. Holbrook, who has cut his teeth in a slew of supporting performances in films such as Gone Girl, Milk and Run All Night, appears up to the challenge in a role that requires him to be understated while giving off the aura that he could conjure up fury of his past life. Cinematographer Bérénice Eveno (The Dark Knight) conveys Mo’s angst with gorgeous tight close-ups and his camera work is above average.
After concluding a long run on the hit AMC show, Mad Men, Moss shows that she is more than capable of playing a grittier character. Her Rose is a damaged soul, beaten down emotionally and physically and Moss does a good job of showing her transition from a battered victim to a woman who believes in the power of love.
Unfortunately for Lew, The Free World feels like two separate films as his screenplay proves to be too ambitious for this first-time director. There are scenes when Mo must remain cool, even as it seems that every lawman in town is determined to make him pay for what they perceive his crime was, despite him serving time. Notably, Detective Shin (Sung Kang) proves to be tenacious, pressing the human powder keg just enough to break his steely veneer long enough to register his frustration and disgust, but short of placing himself in jeopardy. It is these scenes that Lew excels in but the film becomes problematic he veers into complicated emotional territory, undermining his original premise with questionable character behavior.
While Lew’s screenplay leaves the audience to fill in the blanks of undisclosed plot points and details, this story of two broken people who find salvation and redemption in each other has a couple of solid building blocks, namely Holbrook and Moss. In The Free World, it is ironic that these two ultimately discover that while they can run away from their problems, they can’t escape the emotional shackles of their pasts.