Freeway (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What happens when you cross The Brothers Grimm with David Lynch, and throw in a little Quentin Tarantino for good measure? The result, or something very much like it, can be found in Matthew Bright's brilliant, incisive satire, Freeway, which updates the children's story "Little Red Riding Hood" in new, surprising, and very adult ways. Anyone who never appreciated this fable may revise their opinion after watching Freeway.

The film works -- and does so manifestly -- because its intentions are clearly delineated. Using black humor, blood, and a pair of tremendous performances, Freeway hones in on its targets and calculatedly skewers them one-by-one. First up is America's welfare system. Then the judicial system. Then the penal system. And, when you put all the pieces together, you realize that Freeway is making a penetrating statement about the general populace's endless fascination with the lurid and violent. And, unlike Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, which was torpedoed by interference from the director's ego, Freeway drives home the point effectively. This movie is both grimly funny and thought-provoking.

Reese Witherspoon plays a modern-day, white trash Red Riding Hood by the name of Vanessa. She has what might be termed "domestic problems." Her mother (Amanda Plummer) is a prostitute and her stepfather (Michael T. Weiss) is a drug addict. When the cops bust both of them, Vanessa faces another round of foster care. So, instead, she runs off to find her paternal grandmother, who lives in Northern California. Her boyfriend (Bokeem Woodbine) gives her a gun as a going-away present. Shortly after she gets on I-5, her clunker of a car breaks down. A passing motorist by the name of Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland, the wolf -- or Wolverton -- in sheepish clothing) gives her a lift. As they drive north, she starts opening up to him, relating her sad life's story. His intentions are anything but altruistic, however, and their little trip leads to a violent off-highway confrontation. This critical event takes place well before Freeway's halfway point, and opens the door for a number of surprising plot developments.

As incisive as Freeway's story is, the film wouldn't be nearly as successful without terrific turns by the two leads. Reese Witherspoon, a young actress with a few impressive performances behind her (The Man in the Moon, A Far Off Place), displays an aptitude for acting naturally and believably, no matter how outrageous her circumstances are. She captivates with her nonstop energy, culling our sympathy and enabling us to see the world through Vanessa's eyes. No less effective is Kiefer Sutherland, playing a truly creepy villain with a pitch that is perfect for this kind of off-kilter motion picture. There's no doubt that he's the big, bad wolf.

Freeway contains several great moments, many of which work equally well as social commentary and comedy. For example, one particular black cop (Wolfgang Bodison) is out to get Vanessa until he realizes that her boyfriend is black. Thereafter, he's her staunchest defender. Then there are the supposedly-upright people in this film -- Wolverton, his wife (played by Brooke Shields), a prison matron, and others -- all of whom hide at least one twisted, dark secret. This cynical view of human nature is what fuels the films of David Lynch and the Coen brothers, and it's very much in evidence here in Bright's directorial debut.

Red Riding Hood references abound, from the opening credits (which depict the Grimm story in drawings) and a TV cartoon to one of the film's last lines ("what big teeth you have"). In addition to already-noted differences between the fairy tale and Freeway, there's one other factor that deserves mentioning. In this "Little Red Riding Hood", the wolf makes one huge mistake -- he picks a girl who certainly doesn't need a woodcutter to do her butt-kicking for her.

Freeway (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 1996-08-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1