Freeway Review

Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) is a sixteen-year-old juvenile delinquent. When her mother is arrested for soliciting, she decides to stay with her grandmother instead of going into care. But her troubles start when she hitches a ride with Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland) whom she does not know is the I-5 Killer the police are searching for…

Freeway didn’t make much of a splash on its cinema release, though some critics – Siskel and Ebert among them – did pay attention. It looks like a straight-to-video exploitation movie (and indeed bypassed British cinemas altogether), albeit one with an Oliver Stone executive-producer credit and a stronger-than-usual supporting cast. But it has a first-time director, a young (nineteen) female lead and a male lead whose cinema career had peaked and who had yet to make an impression with 24 on TV. But word of mouth had an effect, and Freeway rapidly picked up a cult following.

Freeway is certainly not for everyone, and is certainly not recommended for anyone likely to be upset by some graphic violence and explicit dialogue. At times Freeway feels like the work of a young director, pushing things to see how far they can go, with little regard to good taste or political correctness. So it comes as something of a surprise that first-timer Matthew Bright was well into his forties when he made this film. It’s the first of an intended trilogy of films giving modern spins on old fairy-tales. Freeway derives from Little Red Riding Hood.The inferior followup Confessions of a Trickbaby (sometimes known as Freeway II, but not on the print I saw) is a take on “Hansel and Gretel” and a third film will update “Three Little Pigs”.

Freeway is a very good first film, tense and funny in a very dark way. It’s a debut that Bright has so far failed to live up to. It’s true in that on this and later evidence he’s a writer-who-directs rather than a fully-fledged writer-director: Freeway doesn’t have a great deal of visual flair: John Thomas’s camerawork tends to an overlit look that suggests small-screen intentions. But what gives the film it’s undoubted energy is Bright’s script, which is full of quotable lines, and the performances. One of the key sequences in the film is Vanessa’s ride with Bob in his car: an entirely dialogue-driven scene of some fifteen minutes. Bright very wisely keeps out of the way and lets Sutherland and Witherspoon get on with it. Dan Hedaya is his usual solid self as a cop who tends to be sympathetic to Vanessa, while Wolfgang Bodison is adept as his partner whose opinion of her changes. There are some nods to John Waters along the way – check out the design of the trailer park where Grandma lives – but Bright completely avoids camp and plays the film straight – even a scene where Vanessa prays - and it’s much better for it. There’s a striking Danny Elfman score – like the movie, a scary funfair ride – which was done as a favour to Bright by the composer, who had been a childhood friend.

Freeway caused problems for censorship boards worldwide. The MPAA initially gave the film a NC-17 rating, before trimming it for a R. Accounts vary as to what was cut – though most likely some of the more explicit dialogue – and if this cut material is included in overseas versions. The BBFC made seven seconds of cuts, as follows:

The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.
One shot was removed from the scene where Bob’s stash of porn magazines is found – the sight of the title (but no pictures) Cock Sucking Toddlers, presumably due to the Child Protection Act. Also, the BBFC removed the first of two shots of Grandma’s corpse, with a noose around her neck. This is presumably because she is naked and most of her breasts are exposed – it’s probable that the BBFC considered this a “rape trigger” image, which was a particular concern of theirs at the time. (The second shot, at a different angle and neck upwards, was left in.) Both of these shots are included in this R-rated DVD. However, some accounts refer to a shot of Grandma with her legs apart, though with a vase between them. This is not in the present version of Freeway, and may, if it ever existed, be among the MPAA cuts. One line rumoured to be cut by the MPAA – “Get your fucking pants down, you fucking cunt!” – does in fact remain on this DVD. In his commentary, Bright mentions that the MPAA objected to the scene where Vanessa attacks a guard with a home-made knife, but as far as I can tell this scene is uncut.

This new DVD release is encoded for Region 1 only. However, not all the news is good. The main problem is that while this DVD is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1, it is not anamorphic. It is also single-layered. By all accounts it is the same DVD as originally released by Republic Pictures way back in 1997, given a new label and packaging by Lionsgate. What might have been excused in a release so early in the format’s life is far less so now: The result would probably look okay on small TV sets (it’s THX approved), but on anything much larger, its flaws are obvious: at times too dark or too soft, with noticeable aliasing pretty much throughout. There are forty-one chapter stops, though you can only select every third one from the menu.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. Much of this is used for the music score, though there are some instances of directional sound. No complaints here: the track is well balanced and dialogue is clearly audible.

The main extra is a commentary by Bright, which – as is given away at one point – was recorded for the film’s laserdisc release. It’s an entertaining listen, funny and revealing at the same time. The only other extra is a red-label (restricted-audience) trailer.

There’s a strong case for a film like Freeway to be revisited on DVD, a decade after its release, with its cult status ensured and its two stars higher-profile now than when they were at the time. This, unfortunately, is a missed opportunity.

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