“Freeway” (1996)

by A.J. Hakari

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November, I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of SuperMarcey.com), Bede Jermyn (also of SuperMarcey.com), Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

Next up is Marcey’s selection, Freeway, and here’s why she chose it for me:

Freeway was a film that I saw when I was around 12, and it threw me for a loop. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it was a very twisted ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale. Watching it as an adult, the experience was completely different, and I got so much more out of it. The central performance from Reese Witherspoon is phenomenal, and I knew she would be a star after seeing this. I recommended this to A.J. mainly because he hadn’t seen it, and, in my book, this is a must-see for ’90s films. It is quite frankly fucked-up and very unique for its time.”

And now…the review…

As we speak, movies are giving fairy tales a gritty once-over, ostensibly to bulk up the budgets and stakes of old-fashioned stories for more modern audience tastes. Thus far, not much has been contributed except a lot of scowling and watered-down violence, with opportunities to go really out there left unseized. Freeway, meanwhile, has its sights trained directly on left field, updating yesteryear’s cautionary fable to fit a greasy, grimy, Natural Born Killers-y universe. Like Oliver Stone’s joyride into depravity, Freeway can be a tough sit, although the chances and directions the plot takes make the effort worthwhile.

Think of Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) as Jerry Springer fodder with a heart of gold. Despite coming from the trashiest of white trash roots, she loves her messed-up family and maintains a sunny outlook on life in general. But Vanessa finds herself all alone in the big, bad real world after her mom (Amanda Plummer) and stepdad (Michael T. Weiss) are hauled off by the cops one day. Facing another tour of duty in the foster care circuit, Vanessa opts to bolt and go on the run, hoping to find a home with the grandmother she’s never met. Instead, she’s picked up by Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a diseased maniac masquerading as Mr. Nice Guy — although he soon learns that Vanessa is nowhere near the hopeless victim she appears to be.

Freeway‘s symbolism ranges from the obvious to the “we’re going to tell you what we mean to your face.” Writer/director Matthew Bright doesn’t try to hide the story’s connections to the Red Riding Hood tale or incorporate them in particularly subtle ways. The hand-drawn title cards announce their inspiration right off the bat, the final confrontation goes down at grandma’s house, and, for Christ’s sake, just look at the name of Kiefer’s character. This, coupled with so many despicable characters leering at you from every corner of the frame, can make getting into Freeway a daunting task (hell, even I was surprised to see Siskel & Ebert give it their two-thumb approval back in the day). But the more time you spend with Vanessa, the more you understand that there’s more going on here than dolluping saucy thrills onto a kid’s story.

Say what you want about Reese Witherspoon, but in Freeway, she puts on full display the bravery and acting chops that made her such a promising performer before plunging into the romcom grinder. With what could’ve been a sneering and screechy character, Witherspoon mixes attitude with heart; Vanessa may not be a traditional good girl, but her morals are in the right place, more so than anyone else she’s sharing the screen with here. Witherspoon makes for a tough gal, nicely complimenting Sutherland’s turn as a creepozoid who takes great pains to hide his monstrous side beneath a smile and a pat on the back. But this being a road movie at heart, don’t get too attached to any of the supporting players, which include Brittany Murphy as a sex-starved prisoner and Brooke Shields as Bob’s pious wife.

Could Freeway have been better? Probably — were the fairy tale angle not abandoned in the middle so Bright could go on a “chicks in jail” bender, it would’ve been how far he could really take his concept to the test. But as uneasy on the eyes and ears as it tends to be, Freeway is still one engagingly grungy trip.