Freeway (1996)
By: Julian on April 30, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Force Entertainment (Australia), All Regions, PAL. 1:85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 102 minutes.
The Movie
Director: Matthew Bright
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Brooke Shields, Amanda Plummer, Brittany Murphy
Screenplay: Matthew Bright
Country: USA
A particularly nasty pre-mainstream vehicle for Reese Witherspoon, Freeway is a twisted take on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. Banned in Australia upon its initial release, the film garnered cult acclaim for its stars and writer-director Matthew Bright, who sadly edged his way out of the business after this audacious debut.

We're introduced to Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon, in what most sleazeballs and exploitation connoisseurs would argue is her best role), a fifteen-year-old illiterate delinquent who lives with her drug-addled prostitute mother Ramona (Amanda Plummer) and her molesting stepfather Larry (Michael T Weiss). When Ramona and Larry are pinned in a police sting for their respective crimes, Vanessa finds herself left at the mercy of the government care system again. After deceptively handcuffing the child services agent who comes to pick her up to her steel bed frame, Vanessa makes a run for it. Taking her mother's car and her boyfriend's gun, Vanessa bids her old life adieu with the intention of driving to her grandmother's to start afresh.

Things, as they do, go awry when Vanessa's car breaks down on the freeway, and she is forced to hitchhike. She is picked up by Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a psychologist who begins to gently shrink her from the driver's seat. When night falls, his questions become more pressing and more personal, and Vanessa wants out. Too late, it seems – Bob reveals himself as the prolific I-5 serial killer, a deranged pedophile psycho, and Vanessa is set to be his next victim.

Not if she can help it, though, and after a hysterical turn of the tables, Vanessa deals Bob a headful of bullets and leaves him to die. The gravely wounded killer makes it to a hospital, and Vanessa is caught – her uneducated lack of repentance positioning her to the investigating detectives as a cold-blooded killer. Bob is hideously deformed and is left wearing a colostomy bag ('I hope you think of me every time you shit in that thing, motherfucker!' Vanessa taunts in court) and getting around in a wheelchair. Along with his devout wife Mimi (Brooke Shields), Bob makes numerous televised pleas for justice and vehemently denies his crimes while Vanessa languishes in a female penitentiary. However, Bob is far from finished, vowing revenge on the little bit of jailbait that ruined him.

Forget the self-referential antics of Grindhouse, Freeway may well be the greatest neo-exploitation film ever made. This thoroughly mean-spirited adaptation of the oft-told children's story closely follows its source material, down to the hilarious cartoons of an overly promiscuous Riding Hood during the opening credits. Perhaps, though, this is the most accurate 'fairy tale' there is – modern day stories such as Red Riding Hood told to the French aristocracy in the 18th century were allegedly rife with violence and sexual depravity, and were merely watered down for kiddy consumption.

At its core, and above being a psychological thriller or an exploitation movie, Freeway is a comedy, albeit of the blackest kind. Despite being a genuinely creepy character, Bob provides some of the best laughs. Witherspoon is also great, delivering some cracker lines ('My dick may not function, but I still have not lost my smile') and playing upon her character's lack of education and trash roots for maximum comedic, not to mention exploitative, effect. And, like all exploitation films, there is some seriously jaw-dropping stuff here. Bob's threats to screw the underage Vanessa post-mortem are puerile, and Vanessa's inherent racism (she calls an African-American detective a 'shit-skinned motherfucker', despite having a black boyfriend) recalls some of William Sanderson's worst epithets in Fight for Your Life. The film's rapid shift from roadie thriller-cum-police procedural to a fine example of the Women-in-Prison film is great, and Witherspoon having to fight off the advances of Brittany Murphy's weirdo lesbian prisoner and the abuse of testosterone babes is a grateful nod to the best of the WIP cycle. It's pretty clear that Bright never really intended Freeway to be something super-serious or make any social commentary, and the comedy and hysteria comes across very well. Oliver Stone, fresh off his own homicidal teen road trip opus Natural Born Killers, is on executive production duties here and his influence is pretty clear.

Freeway suffered from a number of censorship issues in Australia and was banned outright upon its initial release. The OFLC's reasoning was allegedly the assaultive sexual dialogue between Vanessa and Bob, as well as a lingering shot of a corpse towards the end of the film. The ban was eventually revoked and the film was released on VHS. Force's DVD is totally uncut.

Freeway received relatively good reviews in a response that was atypical for a picture of a film of its kind. At the time of writing, the film stands at 74% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with some glowing appraisals. In 1999, Bright filmed a sequel to Freeway, subtitled Confessions of a Trick Baby, with Natasha Lyonne and Vincent Gallo in the lead roles in a take on the Hansel and Gretel tale. Bright's later films included a Ted Bundy biopic and Tiptoes, a 2003 romantic comedy (!). The director's next film, The Manson Girls, is currently in pre-production, proving that there might be some life in him yet.

To fault it, Freeway loses a lot of natural momentum towards its second act, from the prison scenes onwards, becoming farcical. It isn't really a plausible film to begin with, and it doesn't try to be anything different – but any notion of sense that Bright was maintaining is up, up and away in the final forty minutes. However, Freeway is meant to be a deliriously sensationalistic exercise in excess and has proven to be one of the most subversive indie films of the nineties. Witherspoon and Sutherland are absolutely fantastic, and manage to rein in the hysterics before it gets too over-the-top acting-wise. Highly recommended.
The picture is presented in the 1:85:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement. Everything looks great, with colours sufficiently sharp and the picture clear throughout.
One English audio track, a Dolby 2.0, is provided. The sound is reasonable but, like the vast majority of 2.0 tracks, you'll need to fluctuate the volume depending on whether there's blaring action or soft dialogue. Danny Elfman scored the film for his childhood friend Bright for the princely sum of a buck.
Extra Features
A theatrical trailer. 

The Force DVD is one of two Freeway prints fully uncut, with the other being a barebones German disc. While Lionsgate's R1 DVD has an audio commentary by Bright and a 5.1 soundtrack, the Force disc comes out trumps due to its anamorphic transfer and censorship status.
The Verdict
Fantastic stuff. I had absolute, shameless fun with this from the opening credits to the concluding shot.
Movie Score
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