Little Red Riding Hood + serial killers was done recently in the British tryptic Red Riding, but not so literally, so over-the-top and so maniacally as this 1996 Reese Witherspoon/Kiefer Sutherland vehicle.
Quick synopsis before some very free-form, vehicular-pun-filled thoughts: Reese Witherspoon is Vanessa Lutz (red riding hood) and Kiefer Sutherland is Bob Wolverton (the uh…wolf). She is on the wrong side of the tracks with a meth-addicted mother and a father with roaming hands. Mom and dad get arrested. She doesn’t want to go back to foster care. So she does the obvious – go to grandma’s house. Along the way she meets a nice professorial type. Bob Wolverton talks the intellectual and sympathetic talk…and then tries to rape her. There’s much more to this synopsis, but things go very haywire very quickly.
Freeway features absurdly awesome cameos by Brooke Shields and Dan Heydaya and attempts to tackle an inherently misogynistic and class-biased judicial system, a sinkhole that can be foster care, American ‘trailer-trash’ and interracial stereotypes, and problems of recidivism via an aesthetic that is reminiscent of a scenic cruise through John Singleton’s South Central if shot by Terry Gilliam and with John Waters at the steering wheel.
Some highlights of this film…and there are many:
-A trash-comic book opening credit sequence with eerie Danny Elfman music that could be a short film in and of itself. Here’s a film that makes no bones about its fairy tale allusions, to the extent that it just lays it all on the road for you with these opening credits. It’d be as if The Seventh Seal had a quick opening montage that just laid bare all chess/death metaphors and then asked you to simply, ‘go along for the ride.’ Not that Freeway nears Scandinavian monotone, but nonetheless, Matthew Bright’s film is so self-aware that the fun in the film is not discovering that it is a Little Red Riding Hood parody, but in how said parody will play out. Being as familiar with it as most of us are, we are inevitably waiting for the “my what big teeth you have,” moment…and man does that one not disappoint.
-A woman’s prison interlude that seems to have no real narrative relevance. It’s as though Bright suddenly realized that he loved women’s prison films and decided to make a short one in the middle of Freeway.
-One of the most terrifying (perhaps something to do with its posthumous nature) Brittany Murphy roles ever. Ever.
-The use of closeups. My friend Romeal and I were both commenting on this as we watched it. Bright, for all of the over-saturated cheese he drives home in this film really accomplishes something directorial. His closeups are saved for the perfect moments and they are downright scary. Their effectiveness is felt in two ways: 1) the scene we are watching is building logically and tensely, but staying in medium shots and no closer. As the danger builds we begin to expect the action to change/occur for the worse and for the violent. Instead of jumping right into violence, Bright slowly accelerates Vanessa’s awareness as well, to the point that she sees the violence coming before it happens…and so do we. So the easy way to handle this: shock cut to gore (and that comes later), but instead, Bright jumps in to a quick extreme-close-up of the villain (Wolverton or a cop) and the graphic change on screen is jarring enough that, for the split instant, it substitutes for the violence. The abrupt use of the closeup is actually, because of our anticipation and the shot’s rarity to this point, scarier than the action. 2) as commentary. Bright steers us to an early parallel between Wolverton and a police officer. He uses the close-ups on both men in the exact same way and, as importantly, at the exact same moment in the conversation as Vanessa sees it. The closeup then, becomes a recall shot, forcing us to compare these two men, as filtered through Vanessa’s perception.
-Deadpan humor. Who is making fun of whom? When a man trudges across frame gushing blood and no one cares about him, is that Bright having fun at our expense (‘haha, look what I’m making you watch’), a commentary on the ineptitude of the police at the scene, or a hybrid of genres?
And what about the outrageous headgear that Wolverton is in after being beaten senseless by Vanessa? His mouth is stretched (showing his “huge teeth”), he constantly drools, and he has to turn his entire body to swivel, yet he still wears a nice ascot. Is this the wolf-theme run amok, a dental fascination gone awry, Kiefer’s Oscar push, an opportunity to visually portray him as two-faced, or a send-up of the “public-adversity” of the upper class?
-The ending. I’ll say this much…it remains faithful to the fairy tale but (SPOILERS) tacks on a little bit of necrophilia for good measure. And Bob Wolverton, he of Young Guns fame, ends up wearing a pink shower cap and a muumuu.
Here’s what’s great about Freeway that I’ve tried to hint at throughout: it is so gleefully self-conscious while still adhering to a strict (women’s prison aside) three-act structure and incorporating serious social justice issues that it’s difficult to know when to laugh and when not to. Usually when you’re laughing the funny part has just ended, and when you’re not laughing the punch line is being delivered. We’re playing catch up and though Matthew Bright has showed his cards at the beginning we still don’t really know what he’s holding at the end.