Freeway: Matthew Bright Revisits the Red Riding Hood Fable, Starring Reese Witherspoon

Watching the new, flawed version of “Red Riding Hood,” directed by Catherine (“Twilight”) Hardwicke and starring Amanda Seifried, I was reminded of the 1996 original indie, “Freeway,” sort of a nasty but witty white-trash take on the long-enduring fable.

What has happened to its director, Matthew Bright, who showed so much promise in his original feature debut? Bright was then better known as the writer of “Gun Crazy,” a low-budget indie starring Drew Barrymore and James LeGros.

For one thing, Bright had the smarts to cast the young but not inexperienced Reese Witherspoon long before she became a bankable star.

Witherspoon plays Vanessa, a likeable teenager, a juvenile delinquent who’s running away from the authorities and social workers.  Traveling to her grandmother’s house, in Stockton, California, she is being hounded by a charismatic yet sadistic pedophile, who may or may not be a serial killer.

A bizarre take on the Red Riding Hood wolf, Bo Wolverton ( a good, menacing Kiefer Sutherland) seduces Vanessa and charms her with his sweet talk.  After a good deal of chatting (critics also complained that the tale was too verbose), he pulls a gun on her.  But the seemingly fragile girl is more resourceful and energetic than Wolverton had thought, and Vanessa retaliates by grabbing his gun and shooting him.  (Rest of the plot cannot be told here0.

Made on a low-budget, “Freeway” gives the impression of an exploitational B-movie, but there is no denying of its more serio (or serio-comic) social satirical elements and in moments its stylish look.

At the time, when “Freeway” world premiered in the Dramatic Competition at the prestigious Sundance Film Fest, the movie sharply divided critics.  Some thought it was too twisted, too nasty, too trashy, too violent—sort of a response to Oliver Stone’s more controversial and polished “Natural Born Killers,” in 1994.  (Not surprisingly, Stone is credited as one of the film’s exec-producers).

I remember that after the first screening, one of my colleagues (a married man with a teenage daughter) disapproved of the “bad taste” that defined “Freeway,” particularly the image of a bound corpse of an elderly woman, which he thought was used as a sight gag.

 

But other critics singled out the sharply observed characters, the cynical but humorous tone, the gritty and scary atmosphere, and the overall and the originality of a film that major deviations in spirit still remained faithful to the enduring fairytale.

To be fair, the various (one too many) twists and turns made the plot implausible and incoherent, and yet “Freeway” managed to leave a strong thematic and emotional impact in the juxtaposition of a working class girl (with a shoplifting record) and a presumably middle-class, well-mannered middle-class middle-age man.

Cast:

Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland)

Vanessa (Reese Witherspoon)

Mimi Wolverton (Brooke Shields)

Detective Breer (Wolfgang Bodison)

Detective Wallace (Dan Hedaya)

Credits

A Roxie release of a Republic Pictures.

A Kushner-Locke and Samuel Hadida presentation in association with August Entertainment and Davis Films of an Illusion Entertainment Group and Muse/Wyman production.

Director: Matthew Bright

Producers: Chris Hanley, Brad Wyman, Oliver Stone, Dan Halsted, Richard Rutkowski

Screenplay: Matthew Bright

Camera: John Thomas

Editor:   Maysie Hoy

Production Design:Pam Warner

Costumes: Merrie Lawson

Music:   Danny Elfman

Running Time: 95 Minutes

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