The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
You know when someone says an older film could never be made today?
Well, Freeway is one of those films that could NEVER be made today.
The film was produced by Oliver Stone who was still coming off the pop-culture juggernaut that was Natural Born Killers and looking to co-sign other films that went particularly hard just like that one did, which was written by none other than a pre-Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino. Freeway has the violence you’d probably expect, along with the witty banter, with Reese Witherspoon even dropping a few N-bombs, that contextually and characteristically make sense. The film itself is a rather bleak take on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, that has Witherspoon, pre-Cruel Intentions, playing our red leather jacket clad protagonist Vanessa, who may be illiterate but more than makes up for it in street smarts.
After her mother is arrested for prostitution and her abusive stepdad is taken away on a drug charge, Vanessa escapes from her parole officer, stealing her car and making a run for her grandmother’s house. (Just like the fairytale!) When her car breaks down she is picked up by Keifer Sutherland as the on the nose Bob Wolverton. He appears to be a good samaritan, but is in fact a serial killer targeting young troubled women along the freeway, who he believes wouldn’t be missed. When Bob reveals his plan to kill Vanessa, she decides to take it upon herself to do the “Lord’s work” and rid the world of Bob, shooting him multiple times. The problem is he survives, just horribly disfigured. Now it’s his word against hers at first, and she is taken off to jail as Bob becomes a media sensation as a warning against trusting our troubled youth, in another nod to NBK.
Simply put, Freeway walked so Rob Zombie could run, with its white trash on a rampage story of one girl who will make it to her grandma’s trailer park by any means necessary. The big difference here is unlike the Firefly family, Witherspoon is just so damn likable. It’s easy to see why she would go on to such iconic roles; she took a character that could have just been this lean and mean white trash stereotype, and while humanizing her, infused her with a real personality that has you genuinely rooting for her the entire time. This is something I think only an actor the caliber of Witherspoon could pull off, especially opposite Sutherland who, while as menacing as you’d expect, takes the character and gives him a righteous indignation that plays well against Vanessa’s underdog. Also of note here is Brittany Murphy, in another loose cannon role, similar to her role in Drive (1997), this time as a very horny prisoner, whose face is horribly disfigured.
Inspired by old school exploitation, Freeway is presented here by Vinegar Syndrome in a new 4K UHD remaster of the original director’s cut, and it’s painful how relevant this film still is. The film does get a bit cartoonish once Vanessa is sent to jail and her antics in the court really push the reality of the piece, but that’s that Natural Born Killers veneer. LIke all Vinegar Syndrome releases, the grain is left intact, with no DNR applied with a film-like presentation. It’s something I’ve begun to expect and appreciate about their releases is the fact that you watch one of their discs and it’s going to be like watching a film unspool opening night, not some gaussian blurred, shiny ass nightmare, like with some distros. It’s something those with bigger screens can appreciate when you see that warmth on screen.
Watching this once cable mainstay I saw countless times before, I was surprised at how much more it had to say. There’s a great subtext to the picture that really hits just as hard as its more sordid bits, as the film just keeps going bigger and bigger. None of this is lost on Witherspoon, who really just goes all in here in what’s easily one of my favorite performances from the actress. This is essentially an exploitation film, and she really is giving it her all. There’s a fearlessness on screen in that performance that allows her to get inside this character to deliver some real depth that is the difference between a film that becomes a cult film and one that doesn’t. Freeway is just a spitfire of a film that takes no prisoners and its something that will thankfully be seen by more people, the way it should be and looking like it was just shot yesterday.