Movie still from 1996's "Freeway."

Imagine Little Red Riding Hood, except the story is set in the ghettos of 1996, Little Red Riding Hood is a dirty blonde teenage punk with anger issues, the mother is a crack-addicted sex worker, the grandma lives in a trailer park, and the Big Bad Wolf isn’t a wolf at all: he’s a serial murderer, or, as the news so fondly labels him, the I-5 killer. If you live in 1996, are a sex worker, and are hitchhiking, scurry away, because your life may be in danger. 

 

When it comes to movies as unhinged as Freeway, an adoration for all things absurd and trashy rises to unseemly biased levels.  There is something about low budgets and Tarantino-esque exchanges that touch me in the way that most films can hardly muster.  Few can brag about having an ever-present crisis of tawdry characters getting into some seriously bad situations, and even fewer can say that they’ve devised a film so dauntless in its over-the-top personality that it nearly laughs itself to death.

 

Witherspoon, who is best when playing against type, portrays Vanessa, a 16-year-old delinquent who is anchored to the ground by her prostitute mother (Amanda Plummer) and drugged-out stepfather.  In school, reading a sentence like “The cat drinks milk” is a feat of Shakespearean hardship, as Vanessa, more enticed to be called a badass in the slums of Los Angeles, is devastatingly illiterate.  But anyone who lacks school smarts and lives on the bad streets of town is bound to be a little more unhinged in their fight in the rat race, after all.

 

After her parents are arrested, Vanessa decides that she’s done with the government, skips foster care, and heads towards the home of her grandmother, who she never has actually met.  Only a few miles into the journey does her car breakdown — lucky for her, a clean-cut stranger (Kiefer Sutherland) comes to the rescue, introducing himself as Bob Wolverton, a high school counselor.  

 

Vanessa immediately confides in her makeshift chauffeur about all her weighty problems. But after traveling for a few hours, Wolverton’s true nature is revealed.  He turns out to be one of those sadistic creeps you read about in the paper — some may know him as the I-5 Killer

 

Vanessa isn’t about to become some helpless next victim, however: She is, fortunately, packing a pistol.  She shoots her would-be murderer several times, takes all his money, and leaves him for dead.  But chances are, when you leave someone for dead, they tend to not actually die, and, as the film would like to remind us over and over, Vanessa should have shot Wolverton just one more time.

 

The saga of Freeway is as combative and unpredictable as the tabloid coverage of a true-crime cat-and-mouse game, its participants so extreme in their shabbiness and their hysteria that, by the end, when Vanessa is completely exhausted, mascara streaming down her face like a jilted prom queen, her asking for a cigarette is as riotous as Lucy and Ethel trying as hard as they can to get the chocolates from overloading on the conveyer belt.

 

Freeway is a comedy, but it’s not a comedy for the Anchorman generation and maybe not even for the ones who thought The Carol Burnett Show was a jewel of the television industry.  It’s mean-spirited enough to drive Regina George away, but even the meanest of people can be hilariously mean. The film is a contorted, white-trash vision. Not laughing would almost be rude.  Matthew Bright, as cynical and clever as he is, has accomplished the rare act of making a B-movie thriller brilliant in its tackiness. A         

 

- Feb. 1, 2015

Freeway