Route 666

The ominous name "Bob Wolverton" clues you in from the outset that this guy is going to be the wolf. The comic terrors of the situation (and the movie's stroke of bad-ass brilliance) emerge from the way Wolverton can suss out Vanessa's needs and, with pseudotherapy, soften her up for the kill. He is, you see, a child psychologist, and he uses his professional training to set his wary friend at ease. When I reviewed A Time to Kill, I speculated, "What's next for Kiefer Sutherland -- a creature feature?" Well, he's playing a werewolf of sorts, and dang me if it isn't the right choice for him. Sutherland is superbly hypocritical as the normal-seeming Wolverton, who asks leading questions with an unruffled air that's a little too breezily empathic.

He and Witherspoon are terrific at giving us the queasies, as Vanessa divulges her secrets with wrenching candor and Wolverton pushes for ever more intimate revelations. It's a nightmare illustration of paternalism's psychic sabotage. Vanessa opens up to a shrink who turns out to get off on her degradation: Her existential freeway has no exit. And just as she seals her claim on our concern and even affection, Bright seals his claim on our attention: He stages the daringly prolonged three-part sequence with equal amounts of gritty sensitivity and thriller craft, up through the horrifying moment when Vanessa realizes that Wolverton is the freeway killer. The director's choices emphasize the confusion of sexual titillation and pent-up violence, reaching an apex of creepiness when Wolverton takes a straight razor to Vanessa's ponytail.

The movie peaks in this episode and its immediate aftermath, but it doesn't peter out. As Wolverton is transformed into a physical monster (to the grief of his picture-perfect wife -- played by Brooke Shields!) and two cops, played by Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison, toss Vanessa into the clink, Bright appropriates the conventions of all manner of exploitation pictures, including girls-in-chains films and Latin gang chronicles. (Hedaya does a perfect deadpan working stiff; Bodison starts shakily, then finds his groove.) Bright uses genre riffs to fuel Vanessa's evolution from a crazy, misunderstood kid to a dangerous young woman who's open to anything, from knife fighting to the love of a lesbian.

In the most explosive comic moment, Vanessa faces the man she mutilated and taunts him for getting beaten with "the ugly stick." Who beat Bright with the talent stick? I hated Bright's script for Guncrazy (directed by Tamra Davis). In Freeway he and his cinematographer, the estimable John Thomas, sustain an "artploitation," fractured-fairy-tale tone to the triumphant yet volatile end. They manage to insinuate Vanessa's point of view while not obscuring the world around her: I love the subtle camera move at the beginning that reads "The cat drinks milk" from right to left and then scans over to the teacher and the classroom, as if the words were Hebrew or the language of a reading-impaired kid. Throughout, they light Witherspoon so that we can discern any hint of softness or flexibility remaining under Vanessa's hardening skin.

Freeway affects adults the way fairy tales (the unexpurgated ones, anyway) do kids: as an unruly and imaginative odyssey that offers the catharsis of "The End" rather than a predigested moral. Bright's Red Riding Hood could go to either Heaven or Hell -- but at least she'll go there independently. The filmmaker has both brought her into the 21st Century and respected her origins. You could say he's given her a retrofit.

Freeway.
Written and directed by Matthew Bright; with Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Brooke Shields, Amanda Plummer, Dan Hedaya, Conchata Ferrell, Bokeem Woodbine, and Wolfgang Bodison.

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