Review: The Free World

Elisabeth Moss and Boyd Holbrook in The Free World

The Free World takes a dark and intense look at two broken people who find each other out of a love for dogs. Elisabeth Moss, Boyd Holbrook and Octavia Spencer play the major roles.

Mohamed Lundy (Boyd Holbrook) is fresh out of prison. He’s hired to work in an animal shelter run by Linda Workman (Octavia Spencer), who knows quite a lot about being on the inside and making it on the outside.

They care for dogs with respect and love. One day a man, a cop (Stephen Louis Grush), brings in a terrier he’s abused. It’s desperately hurt and he wants no more to do with it, saying, “It’s just a dog.” His wife Doris (Elisabeth Moss) sobs in the passenger seat of his truck. He ignores her.

He doesn’t ignore Mohamed, however. He’s very aggressive with him because of his reputation as a a tough guy in prison. He was called “Cyclops” in prison because he put a guy’s eye out. Every cop who runs into Mohamed is inclined to be threatening and act tough around him.

Mohamed and Linda have to put the dog down. Mohamed sneaks back to the shelter in the middle of the night to bury to dog – forbidden by city regulations – and discovers a bloody and incoherent Doris. He takes her to his sparsely furnished apartment.

Elisabeth Moss and Boyd Holbrook in The Free World

The two of them begin a tentative existence together. She’s wanted by the police. He hides her. Both are skittish about everything. Both are afraid of each other and of everything outside the door.

Eventually, they learn that they can trust each other. Having a safe place, a safe person, is a new experience for them both.

For a few days in Mohamed’s bare apartment and later, as they make a run for the border, they are happy. They love each other. The light in their eyes, the smile on their lips – it’s new and amazing to them. It’s beautiful.

But The Free World is not a rom com, and the tiny sliver of happiness in the midst of their grueling lives cannot last. There’s hope and beauty at the end, but not what you’d call a happy ending.

Watching the two of them open up, breathe, and feel safe for a few days reminded me how much love heals. It reminded me that damaged people can be saved.

It was inspiring to watch Mohamed struggle to overcome the toxic masculinity of his life and the need to be macho and unconquerable in prison. It was inspiring to see a woman damaged by an abusive man discover her strength and her ability to carry on.

The Free World, released in 2016, was prior to the publicity and discussion of the current version of the #MeToo movement. I know Elisabeth Moss is brilliant at everything she does, but she was particularly brilliant as a woman who suffered in a long-term abusive relationship. So many women have come forth recently to tell their stories of abuse and violence in the public forum, I thought of them and their pain as I watched her.

Boyd Holbrook also gave an outstanding performance. Holbrook and Moss together were electrifying. The storyline fell apart a little at the end, but Holbrook and Moss made up for that fumble by being superlative.

Jason Lew wrote and directed The Free World. It’s streaming now on Amazon and Netflix.

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