Reese Witherspoon stars as Vanessa Lutz, an illiterate trailer-park girl whose parents are arrested one afternoon in what seems to have become a pretty standard after-school event. Rather than being placed in another abusive foster home, she ditches her social worker and sets off for her grandmother’s house (a grandmother who she’s never met, mind you).
When her car breaks down on the freeway, she hitches a ride with a seemingly kind man, Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland). Before too long, Bob reveals that he’s actually the serial killer who’s been making news headlines for killing young disadvantaged girls and dumping their bodies along the same freeway. But rather than becoming his next victim, Vanessa fights back, leaving him severely disfigured and clinging to life. Vanessa gets sent to a juvenile prison and keeps fighting to get to Grandma’s house, while Bob, a psychiatrist with no criminal record, is portrayed as a hero in the media, victim of a psychotic girl from a bad part of town.
Freeway is a movie that could easily have been written off as sleazy exploitation. It is somewhat sleazy and exploitative, but it also imbues itself with a good dose of comedy and a charming protagonist. Vanessa is no angel, and she does some horrible things in the movie, but she’s a kind-hearted and earnest girl who gets caught on the wrong side of a bad situation. While the movie isn’t a heavy-handed social commentary, it does satirise media portrayals of major-news crimes, and it hits the nail on the head regarding the tendency for media reporting of crime to pick a good guy and run in their favour.
Bob is a 100% evil man, and a pretty disgusting character – Kiefer Sutherland plays him to gross perfection, but he’s a good foil for Vanessa, a girl who would be perfectly fine if she’d been given more chances in a system that disenfranchises the already-disadvantaged. The film opens with her in a class, struggling (but eventually succeeding) to sound out the phrase “The Cat Drinks Milk” – her joy and sense of accomplishment at getting it right highlights the innocence of her character that’s then completely subverted by what we see of her homelife and what happens to her in the rest of the movie.
Freeway is a bit of a trashy movie, but it knows that and wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a very fun movie as well, despite the darkness of its plot, and boasts a veritable litany of 90s stars (Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields, Dan Hedaya, Brittany Murphy, Alanna Ubach and more). It’s a gritty retelling of Red Riding Hood without falling into the traps of other gritty-fairytale-updates by prioritising dourness and moroseness over telling a good story.
Worth it for Witherspoon’s performance alone, Freeway is a very enjoyable way to kill a few hours.