Freeway (1996)

“How did that make you feel?”

“Like I had Daddy’s f***hole tattooed on my forehead.”

Exploitation movie therapy sessions aren’t all scented candles and whalesong, least not when the impromptu therapist is a serial killer coaxing white trash runaways to purge themselves of family abuse tales for fetishistic pleasure. Certainly not when debut film-maker Matthew Bright decided to remake Little Red Riding Hood with contemporary trailer trash using John Waters’ handbook of boundary-pushing sleaze cinema as a styling cue. Certainly not when you have Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland going head to head in a foul-mouthed face-off for bad taste cult classic Freeway.

The trash movie schlock-at-all-costs aesthetic is signalled in the opening credits with a cartoon montage of Little Reds being chased by salivating Big Bad Wolves. The fixation on exposed panties and Danny Elfman’s off-key bizarro-jazz score tells us we’re not in Kansas anymore.

We first meet 15 year old Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) as she struggles to read ‘the cat drank the milk’ off a chalk board in class. Her family network includes black gangster boyfriend Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine), prostitute mother Lenora (Amanda Plummer) and molesting stepfather, Larry (ex-Warhol pin-up Joe Dallesandro). We later learn she’s been arrested seven times for shoplifting, three for arson and once for soliciting, a record she puts down to anger management issues; despite loving her Mum and Jesus, poor Vanessa is the epitome of white trash with a criminal past, low rent present and pretty grim future.

Naturally, when Larry and Lenora are carted off by the police, Vanessa’s primal instinct is to cuff her social worker to the bed, steal her car, get a gun off Chopper and high tail it to Grandma’s house, a mythical trailer flanked by toy giraffes in her dreams. Young Ms Lutz is a force of nature and warnings of the I-5 killer stalking the highways of California aren’t going to stop her.

When her car breaks down, our Little Red Runaway happily accepts a lift from friendly Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), setting the stage for one of cinema’s truly great collisions, as the psychological child counsellor attempts to unpick his damsel in distress. 

If the daytime warm-up session serves to coax Vanessa into trusting her knight in corduroy jacket, by nightfall the conversation takes an inevitably darker tone; she opens up about her abused past and Bob’s salivating leer grows wider. When she finally clicks his interest in Larry’s erection and her mouth being used as a toilet really isn’t therapeutic, the switchblade comes out, her ponytail is sliced and the Big Bad Wolf is revealed. Luckily, our plucky teen tornado still has Chopper’s gun…

Witherspoon and Sutherland play their roles to the hilt, spinning the audience on a goose chase that evokes gasps and guffaws in equal measure. Bob transforms from caring citizen to necrophiliac psycho and Vanessa from moronic victim to righteously avenging angel. It is this deliciously offensive back-and-forth roleplay that elevates Freeway from enjoyably sleazy spoof to shockadelic masterpiece.

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