It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
If Little Red Riding Hood were alive today, she would find that the wolves are bigger and badder, and she'd need to be a lot more resourceful to stay alive. That is the lesson (if it has a lesson) of "Freeway,'' a dark comic excursion into deranged pathology. The movie retells the Grimm fairy tale in a world of poor white trash, sexual abuse, drug addiction and the "I-5 Killer,'' who prowls the freeways in search of victims.
Written and directed by Matthew Bright, who wrote the teenagers-in-trouble saga "Gun Crazy,'' it plays like a cross between the deadpan docudrama of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and the berserk revenge fantasy of "Switchblade Sisters." It seems aimed at people who loved "Pulp Fiction" and have strong stomachs. Like it or hate it (or both), you have to admire its skill, and the over-the-top virtuosity of Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland as the girl and the wolf.
The opening scenes play like updated Dickens, in which warped outlaws inhabit a lair. The heroine, Vanessa (Witherspoon), is struggling, at 15, to sound out such sentences as "The cat drinks milk.'' After school she meets her mother Ramona (Amanda Plummer) on the corner where she works as a hooker. They return home to Ramona's current husband, Larry (Michael T. Weiss), a stepdad, who complains: "Hey, me and your momma both spent the whole day in line getting rent vouchers, and we could use a little consideration.'' The family idyll is interrupted by a narcotics raid. The cops share a little family history: "There's some bad blood between your mom and grandma, on account of she threw a chemical on her face or something.'' The parents are taken to jail, and a youth officer is assigned to take Vanessa to a youth home; thinking quickly, she handcuffs the officer to the bed, steals the cop's car and hits the road--on her way to grandmother's house, of course. She packs a handgun given her by her boyfriend (Bokeem Woodbine).
After the car catches on fire, she's befriended by Bob Wolverton (Sutherland), who has all the right moves to sound like a helpful child psychologist. Vanessa confides in him ("It looks like my stepfather's next parole officer ain't even been born yet'') and opens her cheap wallet to show him a snapshot of her real father (the photo is of Richard Speck). Bob treats her to dinner and an attempted sexual assault, and chops off her ponytail before she asks if Jesus is his savior, empties the handgun into him and throws up. She sees a shooting star, a sign from heaven that she did the right thing, and crosses the border into Mexico, where she works as a hooker in Tijuana until she's arrested.