Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Freeway (1996)

Directed by Matthew Bright
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland
Rated R

"You didn't have to kill me!"

Matthew Bright was one of the original Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. This was way before they sold out, man. He's the guy who wrote Forbidden Zone (1980), that zany midnight movie starring Herve Villechaize and Susan Tyrell they used to show clips of on USA Up All Night at 3AM. I don't know much more about him, but Mr Bright is clearly either a genius or a madman. Who else would spend $3 million Hollywood bucks on an ultraviolent re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood, starring Reese Witherspoon as a trash-talking wayward teen and Kiefer Sutherland as a hooker-murdering child molester? I mean, that's pretty fucking bizarre, isn't it?

Witherspoon - still five years away from her break-out role in Legally Blonde - stars as Vanessa Lutz, an illiterate high school student/compulsive shoplifter with a crackwhore mom (a fully berserk Amanda Plummer) and a pedophile tweaker for a stepfather (Michael T Weiss). When mom and step-groper get popped by Johnny Law, Vanessa finds herself facing foster care. Since she's already suffered under villainous foster parents one too many times, she decides to make a run for it, shackling her parole officer to a bed (Two and a Half Men's Conchata Ferrell), jacking mom's car, and heading for the open road. She has one relative left - a grandmother who lives just outside of LA, in a trailer park. And so, Little Red Vanessa (She carries a basket and wears red, just like the fairy tale) heads off to Grandma's house, unaware that the Big Bad Wolf is already on her tail.

First, however, she stops to say goodbye to her boyfriend, Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine), who gives her a gun to help her on her way. Moments after she peels off, this decision proves fatal, as Chopper is gunned down in the street by rival gang members. His death is mercilessly realistic, and agonizing to watch. No reason. Just is.

Vanessa gets on the freeway and almost instantly, her car erupts in plumes of smoke. She has no idea what to do next, but luckily a friendly motorist named Bob (Sutherland) stops to help her out. Since her vehicle is officially dead, he offers to give her a ride to grandma's, and she takes it. At first, the two get along famously. Bob is a guidance counselor for wayward teen boys, and he encourages Vanessa to open up to him about her troubled life. Once he gets an earful of her tawdry true tales, however, he goes bananas, brandishing a straight razor and threatening to kill her. Just prior to the cops coming to take her family away, Vanessa watched a news report about the elusive Freeway Killer, a serial slayer at large who specializes in picking up prostitutes and chopping them to bits. It appears she has found him. And so she shoots him, in the face and chest, ten times.
I mean, that's what you'd do to a serial killer, right?

Vanessa gets thrown in juvie and Bob, amazingly, survives. Since there's no evidence linking him to the murders, he's set free. Of course, he has sustained some terrible injuries, and now he looks like some Frank Hennenlotter-esque mutant monster, with a gruesomely distorted mouth that leaves him with a permanent madman's leer. But still, it beats the electric chair. His gorgeous wife (Brooke Shields) hires an army of high-powered lawyers and tries to get Vanessa nailed for attempted murder. Vanessa, to her credit, admits that she did, in fact, try as hard as she possibly could to kill the fucker. So it should be a quick trial.

While in jail, Vanessa meets a compulsive lesbian with a Frankenstein face (Brittany Murphy, RIP), two evil pig-tailed twins (Monica and Leanna Creel), and a murderous gangster moll (Alanna Ubach) who Vanessa nearly decapitates five minutes after she meets her. Later on, however, they work out their differences and team up to shank a couple guards and escape.

Meanwhile, the two bumbling detectives on the case (Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison), finally put two and two together and realize that Vanessa was telling the truth about Bob. They raid his house and find a shed out back literally bursting with child porn and human remains (!). When his wife sees her hubby's dirty secret, she goes upstairs and graphically blows her head off. Who ever thought we'd see Brooke Shields' brains splattered all over a wall? Holy smokes.

Bob sees the cops outside of his house and splits. He remembers Vanessa's yapping about her grandmother, so he heads out to the trailer park to see the old girl. Vanessa, on the lam, heads there, too. So do the detectives. Mayhem ensues.

Pitch-black, aggressively weird, and laced with queasy chuckles, Freeway is one of the most enigmatic films of the 1990's, and certainly the most extreme film Reese Witherspoon was ever involved in. Half arthouse, half grindhouse, it walks a woozy line between trash and transcendence. If David Lynch and Roger Corman got into a batch of brown acid together, this is very likely the movie they'd make.

Amazingly, Bright was really only revving up with this one - his follow-up, 1999's Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trick Baby, is pure balls-out, gutbucket exploitation. Starring a too-close-to-the-fire Natasha Lyonne and a cross-dressing, kid-killing Vincent Gallo, Trick Baby is an eyeball-searing trip to hell that's nearly impossible to shake off. Freeway, in comparison, is a mere fairy tale.

A fairy tale with graphic murder and mutilation, but a fairy tale, nonetheless.

- Ken McIntyre

1 comment:

  1. While looking for "Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trick Baby" (after hearing M*A*G*'s podcast review) I queued up this on Netflix and boy howdy!, your review of Freeway is spot on. Matthew Bright has got to be the love child of Corman & Lynch.
    Keep up the great work Ken!


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