Freeway (1996 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byMatthew Bright
Written byMatthew Bright
Produced by
CinematographyJohn Thomas
Edited byMaysie Hoy
Music byDanny Elfman
Distributed byRepublic Pictures
Release dates
  • January 19, 1996 (1996-01-19) (Sundance)
  • June 8, 1996 (1996-06-08) (HBO)
  • August 23, 1996 (1996-08-23) (United States)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3 million[1]
Box office$295,493[1]

Freeway is a 1996 American black comedy crime film written and directed by Matthew Bright and produced by Oliver Stone. It stars Kiefer Sutherland, Reese Witherspoon and Brooke Shields. The film's plot is a dark take on the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood".[2]

The film premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival where it competed for the Grand Jury Prize. It was later screened on HBO on June 8, 1996, and due to favorable reviews, it was given a brief theatrical release. The film has gone on to achieve cult status.


Vanessa Lutz is an illiterate teenager living south of Los Angeles. Her mother, Ramona, is arrested in a prostitution sting, and her stepfather, Larry, is taken in on drug and child abuse charges. Social worker Mrs. Sheets comes to take Vanessa away, but she handcuffs the social worker to a bed and runs away.

Taking the social worker‘s run-down car, Vanessa plans to go live with her grandmother in Stockton. Along the way, she stops to see her boyfriend Chopper Wood, a local gang member, to tell him about her trip. He gives her a gun to sell upon arriving at her destination. Minutes after Vanessa leaves, he is killed in a drive-by shooting. The car breaks down, leaving her on the side of the highway where she is picked up by Bob Wolverton, a counselor at a school for boys with emotional problems. He offers to take her as far as L.A.

Over the long drive, Vanessa comes to trust Bob, and confesses to him the details of her painfully dysfunctional life, including sexual abuse by her stepfather and foster parents. At one point, Vanessa shows Bob a photo she keeps in her wallet of her biological father (she doesn't know the picture is of mass murderer Richard Speck).

That evening, Bob reveals he is a serial killer dubbed the "I-5 Killer", and attacks Vanessa. She turns the tables on him, however, and shoots him several times before escaping. She flees to a local restaurant where her blood-stained appearance prompts the owners to call 9-1-1. As she leaves the restaurant, Vanessa is arrested and questioned by police detectives Mike Breer and Garnet Wallace, who write her off as a carjacker, even though she insists Bob had tried to kill her and had told her about his crimes.

Bob survives, but the bullet wounds have left him severely handicapped and facially disfigured. Vanessa is put on trial; Bob is portrayed as an innocent victim with no criminal record, whereas Vanessa has a long string of prior offenses. Vanessa goes to prison, while Bob and his socialite wife Mimi, who knows nothing of his crimes, are treated like heroes.

Initially scared, Vanessa makes friends in prison that include heroin-addicted lesbian Rhonda, and a brutal Hispanic gang leader named Mesquita. Vanessa plots to escape to her grandmother's house and fashions a shiv from a toothbrush, a skill she had learned from her stepfather. During their transport to a new maximum security prison, Vanessa and Mesquita escape after killing a security guard, and they go their separate ways.

Re-examining evidence, the detectives realize Vanessa was telling the truth. They search Bob's home and find violent child pornography and human remains in a storage shed. Horrified, Mimi commits suicide. Evading the police at his home, Bob travels to Vanessa's grandmother's trailer, using the address written on a picture Vanessa had shown him.

Posing as a prostitute, Vanessa steals a car from a prospective john, driving to the trailer. She finds Bob in bed wearing her grandmother's nightgown and nightcap with the covers pulled up to his nose. He reveals himself and Vanessa sees her grandmother's dead body naked in a chair. A struggle ensues, culminating in her strangling him. Breer and Wallace arrive, finding the bodies of Bob and Vanessa's grandmother. Outside, Vanessa sits in a chair in a daze, then asks the detectives if they have a cigarette. They all smile and laugh.



Oliver Stone served as one of the film's executive producers.[3] Writer and director Matthew Bright said the film underwent multiple edits during post-production and he was not able to preserve his original version for the film, as Stone was away in Nepal at the time.[3] It was filmed on location in Los Angeles, California from July 31 to August 28, 1995.[4]


Freeway premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 1996[5] where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.[6]


In Australia, when Columbia TriStar Home Video submitted a VHS of the original 104-minute print of the film to the Australian Classification Board (then known as the Office of Film and Literature Classification), it was refused classification. The ACB had already approved of a censored version, running 102 minutes, that removed two scenes: one in which Sutherland asks Witherspoon for anal sex on top of his excessive use of obscenities, and another in which a deceased 91-year-old grandmother is shown with a vase covering her private parts and her legs spread apart; the cut version remains available on video in that country, where it is rated R18+.[7]

Critical reception[edit]

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 76% of 42 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.9/10. The website's consensus reads: "A modern update on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, Freeway is an audacious black comedy with a star-making performance from the young Reese Witherspoon."[8] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 61 out of 100, based on 15 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews.[9]

Critics lauded the film's hard-edged satire and performances. Film critic Roger Ebert gave Freeway three and a half stars out of four and stated, "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."[10] It received "Two Thumbs Up" on Siskel and Ebert At the Movies.[11] Joe Baltake of The Sacramento Bee gave Freeway four stars out of four and called it "a wild, audacious drive-in attraction that takes the 'high' from 'highbrow' and the 'low' from 'lowdown' and shakes them up".[12] Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle gave Freeway four stars out of four and said that it was "rude in the way the truth is rude—only funnier".[13] Margaret A. McGurk wrote for The Cincinnati Enquirer that "I didn't particularly want to like Freeway, but I couldn't help myself. Reese Witherspoon made me."[14]

The film was not a success at the box office,[1] but has achieved a cult following over the years through home video and HBO airings from fans who praise its satire, camp style, and Witherspoon's performance.[15][3][16]

Home media[edit]

Freeway was released on DVD by Republic Pictures on August 20, 1997.[17] The film was released as a 4K Blu-ray Limited Edition by Vinegar Syndrome on November 25, 2022.[16]


A sequel titled Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby, also directed by Matthew Bright, was released in 1999.[18] The original actors or characters did not appear in the sequel.


  1. ^ a b c "Freeway (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
  2. ^ Rabin, Nathan (January 24, 2013). "Reese Witherspoon is a badass Little Red Riding Hood in the sordid, sleazy Freeway". The A.V. Club. Chicago, Illinois: Onion, Inc. Retrieved November 2, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c Aurthur, Kate (April 22, 2013). "Reese Witherspoon's Arrest And The Cult Of "Freeway"". BuzzFeed. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  4. ^ Shelley, Peter (2022). Brittany Murphy: Her Life and Career. McFarland . p. 25. ISBN 978-1476682594.
  5. ^ Hicks, Chris (January 18, 1996). "Sundance Film Festival Schedule". Deseret News.
  6. ^ Hicks, Chris (January 26, 1996). "Avalanche of Stars at Sundance Film Festival". Deseret News. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  7. ^ "Freeway (1996) | Censor". Archived from the original on August 21, 2011. Retrieved April 10, 2020.
  8. ^ "Freeway (1996)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 7, 2021.
  9. ^ "Freeway". Metacritic. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 24, 1997). "Freeway movie review & film summary (1997)". Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  11. ^ "Freeway". Siskel & Ebert. Season 11. Episode 6. October 12, 1996. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  12. ^ Baltake, Joe (October 16, 1996). "It's Little Wild Riding Hood". The Sacramento Bee. Archived from the original on February 9, 2002. Retrieved March 23, 2020.
  13. ^ LaSalle, Mick (August 23, 1996). "FILM REVIEW -- 'Freeway's' Wild, Funny Ride". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  14. ^ McGurk, Margaret A. (October 25, 1996). "'Freeway' an old but alluring ride". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Cincinnati, Ohio: Gannett Company.
  15. ^ "9 Reasons Why Freeway (1996) Is One Of The Best Movies Of All Time, According To Reddit". Screen Rant. March 14, 2022. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  16. ^ a b Corey, Joe (January 4, 2023). "4K UHD Review: Freeway". Inside Pulse. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  17. ^ Freeway (DVD). ASIN 6304517661.
  18. ^ Harvey, Dennis (October 11, 1999). "Freeway II: Confessions of a Trick Baby". Variety. Retrieved May 25, 2023.

External links[edit]