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PLOT: Teenager Vanessa flees foster care to go live with her grandmother and is picked up hitchhiking by Bob Wolverton.
COMMENTS: The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is known in the version set down by Charles Perrault, and later as one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but elements of the story date back to ancient Greece. (On the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktales, it’s type 333.) It’s a sturdy trope, revisited many times over the years; we even found one version Canonically Weird. So to come upon Freeway, a modern-day take incarnation of Red and the Wolf’s perennial conflict, is not too surprising. What is different is the gusto with which the film embraces some of the darkest elements of our modern world.
Writer/director Matthew Bright brings two major twists to his take, both revolving around our perception of the heroine. Witherspoon embodies the guileless innocent of the fairy tale as a magnificent piece of white trash. Foul-mouthed and incapable of shame, Vanessa has stepped straight out of “Jerry Springer” and brought a bouillabaisse of lower-class tropes with her: her mother turns tricks, her stepfather is a layabout drug addict and molester, her boyfriend is a drug dealer, her cellmate is an emotionally immature lesbian, she takes down an aggressive Mexican girl to become the alpha of the detention facility, and she’s so illiterate as to barely be able to read the word “cat.” It is to Witherspoon’s credit that she never softens the rough-edges of her antisocial character, yet still earns our support. Vanessa is plucky, resourceful, and hews to a strict code of honesty and personal morality. Even in the face of danger, she refuses to be anything but herself. You don’t always like her, but you have to admire her perseverance.
This ties into the other twist that Freeway brings to the table: our heroine takes her fate into her own hands. No woodsman comes to her rescue; her boyfriend – named “Chopper,” natch – is unable to help her, and the police are unwilling, taking her at face value as a degenerate miscreant. (In fairness, her use of racial epithets doesn’t exactly endear her to the African American detective.) The only person willing to look out for Vanessa is Vanessa, and she doesn’t hesitate to take charge, escaping her social worker, crippling her attacker, and even staging a prison break. (She’s very funny showing up at a diner covered in blood and daintily asking for the washroom.) She is repeatedly punished for her initiative, because given the choice between a young woman who is hardened by her origins and an outwardly clean-cut school counselor who moonlights as a sexual deviant and serial killer, society is obviously going to side with the man. In this version of the fairy tale, the princess is all on her own.
Witherspoon is matched well with Sutherland, who makes a meal of his role by heightening all the different personas of the Wolf: false ally, malformed victim, gleeful sadist. Even though you’re never going to mistake Kiefer for a bleeding heart, he has a lot of fun playing up Bob’s false purity, so that when he does start to reveal his true colors, the over-the-top villainy makes sense as the other side of the coin. By the time he’s been maimed and emasculated by Vanessa, he’s become pure raging id.
As a character study, Freeway is pretty entertaining. As a story, it’s surprisingly conservative, holding tight to the source material. Some of the references feel fun and cheeky, but others are shockingly literal, from the basket that Vanessa totes on her journey to the disguise Bob dons to trick her in the film’s climax. That puts a lot of pressure on style to justify the film’s very existence. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, asserts his law that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Ergo, Freeway is not about a girl who uses her wiles to elude a savvy killer, but rather about our insatiable hunger for lurid stories that confirm our suspicions that the world is a cesspool but there’s nothing wrong with us. For Ebert, that’s why Freeway works. The voice is perfectly attuned to the sensational subject matter.
Ironically, I would argue that all that is a major reason why Freeway is kind of a mess. It’s so focused on the satire, on replicating a child’s fable with a vulgar end-of-the-millennium veneer, that it never actually gets to be its own thing. Witherspoon is a delight to watch, but after a while, she appears to be a list of societal ills, not a character. It’s all about the stunt, and that’s distracting. Freeway’s engagement with the less privileged elements of society seems less about anger with the world’s institutions and more a prurient interest in the crude, the nasty, the tasty, tasty dirt. It’s clever, to be sure, but you end up wishing there was something more to it. All the better to watch, my dear.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a dark comic excursion into deranged pathology… plays like a cross between the deadpan docudrama of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ and the berserk revenge fantasy of ‘Switchblade Sisters.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “CinemaObscura.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)