Jason Lew’s lost-soul drama The Free World offers a modest exploration of innocence and guilt, with occasional interludes of both violence and romance. Mo (Boyd Holbrook, with a low, Matthew McConaughey–esque Southern drawl) has recently been released from prison for crimes he didn’t commit.
Now that he’s out, he’s working at a dog shelter and gradually attempting to readjust to free life. The shelter, with its dark cages and sad-eyed pups, is a dreary setting for reintegration, but at least it’s where he meets Doris (Elisabeth Moss, often sad-eyed herself), the woman who might, according to the clichéd screenplay, become his salvation. We first see her bringing a beaten dog to the shelter as her husband yells threats at her. The animal needs to be put down, and the scene in which Mo disposes of its body in the dark offers portentous signs of pain and confusion to come.
It’s no surprise that Doris and Mo tentatively develop a romantic connection: They’re wandering souls, both misunderstood, and Mo’s protective impulses kick in when the story builds to a possible murder. In a particularly tense scene, authorities come to investigate Mo’s home while Doris hides shivering in a closet — these two quickly come to trust each other, having both been through hell.
Mo converted to Islam in prison, and religion here gets reduced to clunky exposition: “Islam, what does that mean?” asks Doris. Mo’s response: “It means surrender.” The final moments find the lovers together yet apart — the free world isn’t free for long, and with Doris’s shaky gestures and Mo’s brooding, the film makes it all too obvious.
The Free World
Written and directed by Jason Lew
Opens September 23, IFC Center