Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Freeway (1996)

Director: Matthew Bright
Screenplay: Matthew Bright
Cast: Reese Witherspoon (as Vanessa Lutz); Kiefer Sutherland (as Bob Wolverton); Wolfgang Bodison (as Detective Mike Breer); Dan Hedaya (as Detective Garnet Wallace); Amanda Plummer (as Ramona Lutz); Brooke Shields (as Mimi Wolverton)

Synopsis: When her mother is arrested for soliciting, and her step father is arrested at the same time for drugs and for potentially molesting her, delinquent teenager Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) decides to search for her grandmother on her late father's side, hitchhiking when the car she borrows breaks down in the middle of the freeway. The person who picks her up is boys' school councillor  Bob Wolverton (Sutherland), who seems sweet and understanding of her problematic upbringing but starts to reveal a psychotic side to him as the trip continues.

Matthew Bright is certainly a one-off; writing his first script for Forbidden Zone (1980) and starring in it under the pseudonym of Toshiro Boloney as Squeezit the Chicken Boy and his twin sister René Henderson is certainly as unique a debut as you can get and he went on from this in his own offbeat path. Before seeing Freeway, even Forbidden Zone, my first Bright film was Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trick Baby (1999), a separate narrative with another actress in the lead memorable for Vincent Gallo playing a transvestite nun. Then there was Tiptoes (2003), a film even if its politically incorrect to say this can only be described as a Life Time melodrama about dwarfism where, considering a talented actor like Peter Dinkledge was in the cast in an early role, Gary Oldman spends the narrative on his knees as the dwarf brother of Matthew McConaughey. Bright in the world of cinema, as well as being completely alien to political correctness, is an apt candidate for the Hunter S. Thompson description of being " too weird to live too rare to die" and the fact that Tiptoes was his last film and, alongside Bundy (2002), only directed four films emphasises this fact.

Unlike Forbidden Zone, which is a zany musical document of the original version of the Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, Freeway arguably has a political side behind its transgressive personality in how it deals with poverty row working class and a female juvenile delinquent who in a fifties exploitation would be a one dimensional danger to wholesome society. Witherspoon's Vanessa is a very morally grey person, capable of horrific violence and detached from human sympathy to others but also a troubled young woman whose upbringing is tragic, a charismatic and lovable person in spite of her behaviour thanks to a great debut performance from Witherspoon and Bright's script willingly celebrating amorality through the character. This is more so when a far more amoral figure, completely unsympathetic and evil, exists in Sutherland's Bob Wolverton, at first a likable adult who gains Vanessa's trust as he takes her in his car to her destination but is quickly revealed to be a monster who gets off scot-free as a victim, Vanessa viewed as the stereotypical "white trash" criminal sent to juvenile detention as the prosecutor argues she should be in jail for her act of violent self defence against him.

Stereotypes of the working class in American films are rife and problematic; like rednecks, they are the one group people somehow get away with mocking without consequence, the same vitriol in the jokes that would be homophobic, racist and misogynistic if used at the expense of another group. Freeway's willingness to be distasteful and sordid means you're forced onto the side of Vanessa, who can be remorseless and break another girl's nose when angry but is as much someone who only became that way because of being treated as garbage by society. Discrimination and bigotry is found in the police towards her as much as she can be bigoted to others, and the un-PC dialogue having a depth when characters show layers, such as Vanessa having an African-American boyfriend Cutter (Bokeem Woodbine) who she loves dearly but willingly using racial epilates when a black police detective Detective Mike Breer (Bodison) first calls her a "hooker" and a "trickbaby" during an interrogation. That it's a female protagonist is even more significant. As it's bigoted to mock the working class American, there's as much a deep seated sexism that looks down on working class women more so for their class status - those in films who work in diners, those who are drug addicts in movies, those in juvenile detentions or went to prison, those who are prostitutes in movies or are the children of sex workers. To be gladly on the side of a young woman who, not to spoilt the film, has a history pyromania and shoplifting, is unrepentant in a lot of her behaviour, and escapes juvenile detention by way of an official and a guard being killed within her influence is very subversive. Unlike the cute but ultimately middle class attitude to such a character in Citizen Ruth (1996), where Laura Dern plays a solvent addict who realises she's pregnant and  becomes the object of an ideological tug-of-war, Bright's decision to throw good taste out the window and throw everything including the kitchen sink back in is actually more progressive in hindsight for not getting on its moral high horse about the subject and try to have a blatant satirical message. Effectively, the John Waters attitude of respecting even those on the extreme borders of class and morality, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he loved this film for this and many reasons.

It's a grimly humorous film as a result, bordering on an absurd weirdness and yet having a smorgasbord of taboos including a serial killer that forces a viewer into a ringer about what they see. It belongs to a clear subgenre of the nineties, which only existed in that decade with this specific style, of American films (many involving roads or actual road movies) which had very nihilistic or black humoured views of the world, usually with a lot of gore and the nineties aesthetic at their most saturated including in the soundtracks. David Lynch's Wild At Heart predated them at the cusp of 1990 and includes the likes of Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers (1993) and U-Turn (1997)) to Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation (1995)). Freeway is amongst them also showing their habit of casting actors that would become exceptionally popular later on or already had followings - here with a young Renee Witherspoon to a young Rose McGowan in The Doom Generation - and like them they all have the effect of the viewer being spiked with a hallucinogen when watching them, the border between the tasteless and the satirical sharpness blurred as far as possible that it's amazing a few of these films were high budgeted Hollywood productions.

Technical Detail:
Bright's debut film, originally made for television for HBO but built upon for a theatrical release when it gained positive responses, it's solidly made and ultimately more like bathing in the nineties aesthetic than stylish, in itself as much a style that it wears with pride with its plastic flamingos and grey highways. Instead it's the script and personality that stands out more. The score from Danny Elfman adds a great deal as well, stepping out from the stereotype of his work with Tim Burton and leaning towards the weirdness of his Oingo Boingo work, the vibes of Forbidden Zone within it after their first collaboration on that film.

The performances in this film are as much part of its makeup and the biggest aspect of its tone. Renee Witherspoon is exceptional, making the fact that her career has very few films like this that allowed her to subvert the public view of her very disappointing; these nineties films had a lot of great and debut performances from actresses, from Rose McGowan to Rosario Dawson in Kids (1995), who sadly don't get the recognition they deserve in terms of acting ability and charisma, these types of meaty roles in edgier and bolder films the kind they deserve and need more of. The same can be said for Kiefer Sutherland too; already engaging when he's transitioning from a wholesome man to a lunatic, the moment a certain prophetic is given to him he dials up his performances to an even greater height of creepy magnetism. The cast in general is pretty strong - Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison as two police detectives have a very interesting and argumentative relationship with each other, the characters' conflicting views a standout in terms of the film's tone, as is Brooke Shields in a small role that stops feeling like stunt casting as her narrative path becomes the blackest, hollow humour possible, the kind of humour that you'll feel the need for a cold shower afterwards if you find it completely unfunny and disturbing.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
This is a case where, rather than strange imagery or a weird plot structure, it's the tone and deliberate provocation which causes it to feel weird. It's a mild form which could be contested on rewatches; it gives the film an unrelenting, sordid edge but whether this would mean it would get on the Abstract List is up to debate. At the point of this review being created, it wouldn't.

Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque
Abstract Tropes: Teenage Rebellion; Provocative Dialogue; Serial Killer; Facial Disfigurement; Cheering on Amoral Anti-Heroes

Personal Opinion:
An edgy gem. Not for everyone but for those with the stomach for something this dark, this is a neglected and underappreciated film that deserves more attention given to it. 

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