Dir. Matthew Bright
When juvenile delinquent Vanessa witnesses her mother and stepfather being hauled off to jail on drugs and prostitution charges, the teenage tearaway goes on the run from a social worker who wants to put her into care. She sets off to seek sanctuary at her grandmother's house. Along the way however, she has a run in with a charming, but sadistic serial killer/paedophile who she discovers has been preying on vulnerable young women on the freeway…
Matthew Bright’s cult indie hit Freeway is a thoroughly twisted take on the tale of 'Little Red Riding Hood’; a tale that has consistently proved it is ripe for reinterpretation time and again. Much like the original tale not just being a story about a girl eaten by a wolf (it’s actually a rite of passage story about burgeoning sexuality and the threats that accompany blossoming womanhood), Bright’s take isn’t just the tale of a girl who has a sordid encounter with a serial killer – it actually unravels as a damning indictment of the US justice system and how it treats the young people in its charge.
Cartoon images of girls being chased around by a wolf play out under Danny Elfman’s deranged and discordant theme music. Strings trickle, guitars snarl, female vocals coo and pant, and drums crash, creating a wildly off-kilter and exciting tone that smashes throughout the ensuing film. Transporting the high-gothic story of Red Riding Hood to gritty ghettos actually works pretty well. Even the sight of Vanessa (Reese Witherspoon) fleeing her home with her few belongings in a wicker basket and sporting a red leather jacket doesn’t feel contrived. The Red Riding Hood motif is offered throughout the film in glimpses of cartoons on TV sets, knowing slices of dialogue and clever use of metaphor.
As Vanessa, Reese Witherspoon excels as an undereducated, though undeniably world-wise and street-smart young woman, dragged up by her highly dysfunctional mother. She’s portrayed as a victim of her darkly unfortunate circumstances, and though she appears tough and impenetrable, there are moments when it is obvious she is a young girl lost in the world. At heart she is good and honourable, and even though she has spent much of her life ‘straying off the path’ and onto the wrong side of the law, she displays a code of wisdom, ethics and morals that belie her years.
Bright constantly seems to be saying that while Vanessa has a troubled past and leads a volatile existence, it isn’t really her fault – it's important to consider the external circumstances weighing down upon her. When she talks about her past, it doesn’t sound good; it is littered with abuse, prior charges and arrests. It would be easy to judge her, but because we’ve spent a great deal of the film’s running time (well, all of it actually – Witherspoon carries this film) with her, we’ve been privy to who she really is: a confused and nearly broken young woman in need of guidance and understanding. A chance. An opportunity. Things she feels she'll get from her grandmother. She’s had a hard life, but she is basically good.
The script is peppered with quirky, quotable one-liners, most of which are uttered by Witherspoon, who mouths off stuff like “Get your goddamn hands off of my anatomy” and “Well, I get claustrophobic sucking strange dick,” with aplomb.
Freeway exhibits a vague Wes Craven-esque idea of generational conflict throughout. Children are depicted as being at the mercy of care(less)-homes, predatory parental figures, ineffectual social workers and sadistic prison wardens. It’s a fairytale malaise that constantly presents Vanessa with situations in which she has to fend for herself and rely on her own resourcefulness.
One of the standout moments comes with the prolonged and progressively sinister scenes involving Vanessa being quizzed by Bob (Kiefer Sutherland) – a ‘child psychologist’ who gives her a lift when her car breaks down. Of course, we know that he is the serial killer mentioned in various news broadcasts, but Bright takes his time to build tension and menace around the unveiling of this revelation. Bob’s initial ‘concern’ for Vanessa, and mild-mannered questions are laced with double meaning (these scenes prove even more effective when viewed again), gradually become more menacing and obviously sinister as he gains her trust. Kiefer Sutherland is cool and creepy without descending into histrionics. His serial killer is calculating, cold and sadistic, completely at odds with how he looks to the wider world. When Vanessa disfigures him she essentially exposes his inner corruption for all the world to see.
Creepy, voyeuristic shots and predatory glances are sprinkled like breadcrumbs throughout these scenes, especially when we’re introduced to Sutherland’s psychotic killer. Pulling onto the hard shoulder, we see what he sees through his wing mirror as he quietly reverses back along the road: Vanessa bending over the hood of her car inspecting the engine. It’s chilling in its simple implication.
As Vanessa’s mother, Amanda Plummer delivers a typically unhinged performance, and still manages to evoke sympathy. Brooke Shields also manages to lend her character, Bob’s loyal and highly conservative wife, real pathos when she discovers her whole marriage has been a sham. It is genuinely sad and chilling when she does what she does when she finds out about her husband and his history. No mean feat given the Right-Wing, fundamentalist, pro-death penalty jargon she spouts throughout the film. Another little highlight is the appearance of Brittany Murphy, who had a small role in this early on in her career. She plays the ever-spaced out and strangely lovable Rhonda who is prone to stashing drugs in her ‘cooch.’
While there are moments that are genuinely disturbing, and the actual subject matter could have been as unsavoury and exploitative as it sounds, Freeway is actually a hilarious, subversive and supremely dark comedy with a big ol' heart that also manages to raise some pretty important and provocative questions about our perceptions of troubled youths and juvenile delinquents.
Daily Mail readers should proceed with extreme caution…