Freeway (1996 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Matthew Bright
Produced by Chris Hanley
Brad Wyman
Written by Matthew Bright
Starring Reese Witherspoon
Kiefer Sutherland
Wolfgang Bodison
Dan Hedaya
Amanda Plummer
Brooke Shields
Brittany Murphy
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography John Thomas
Edited by Maysie Hoy
Multicom Entertainment Group Inc.
Illusion Pictures
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Release dates
  • August 23, 1996 (1996-08-23)
Running time
102 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $3 million (est.)[1]
Box office $295,493 (US)[1]

Freeway is a 1996 crime film written and directed by Matthew Bright, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Reese Witherspoon and Brooke Shields.[2] The plot of this film resembles the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. Despite being a commercial failure and having censorship problems due to graphic language and violent content, it received mostly positive reviews from critics and has developed a cult following.[3] It is the final film made by Republic Pictures.


Vanessa Lutz (Witherspoon) is a poor, illiterate teenage girl living south of Los Angeles. Her mother, Ramona (Amanda Plummer), is arrested in a prostitution sting and her stepfather, Larry (Michael T. Weiss), is taken into custody on drug and child abuse charges. Social worker Mrs. Sheets (Conchata Ferrell) comes to take Vanessa away, but Vanessa handcuffs her ankle to a bed and runs away. She takes her parents' run-down car and plans to go to her grandmother in Stockton. Along the way, Vanessa stops to see her boyfriend and classmate Chopper Wood (Bokeem Woodbine), a local gang member, to tell him about her excursion and he gives her a gun to sell upon arriving at her destination. Minutes after Vanessa leaves, Chopper is killed in a drive-by shooting by rival gang members. A little later, Bob Wolverton (Sutherland), a counselor at a school for boys with emotional trouble, picks her up after her car breaks down and offers to take her as far as Los Angeles where he is headed.

Over the long drive, Vanessa comes to trust Bob, and confesses to him the details of her painfully dysfunctional life, including being sexually abused by her stepfather. At one point, Vanessa shows Bob a photo she keeps in her wallet of her biological father. That evening, Bob reveals his true nature: he is a serial killer of young girls known in the press as the "I-5 Killer". He tries to kill Vanessa when she refuses to give in to him. The tables are turned, however, as Vanessa eventually pulls out her gun and shoots him several times before escaping. She goes to a local restaurant where her blood-stained appearance attracts attention from the patrons and staff.

After leaving the restaurant, Vanessa is quickly arrested and questioned by two 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 other murders.

Bob has survived, but the bullet wounds have left him severely handicapped and disfigured. Vanessa is put on trial, with everyone believing that Bob is the innocent victim he claims to be since he has no criminal record, while Vanessa has a long record and is a veteran of juvenile homes. Vanessa goes to prison, while Bob and his socialite wife Mimi (Shields), who knows nothing of his crimes, are treated like heroes.

Scared at first, Vanessa eventually makes friends in prison, including a heroin-addicted lesbian named Rhonda (Brittany Murphy) and a brutal Hispanic gang leader named Mesquita (Alanna Ubach). Undaunted, Vanessa plots to escape and continue her journey to visit her grandmother. Remembering what her stepfather taught her about life in prison, Vanessa constructs a crude knife from a toothbrush as a weapon. The following evening, Vanessa and Mesquita are being transferred to a new maximum security prison. En route, Mesquita and Vanessa subdue and escape from the prison guards assigned to escort them, with Mesquita killing one. After their escape, Vanessa and Mesquita part ways as Mesquita goes off to be reunited with her gang, and Vanessa continues her journey to her grandmother's house.

Meanwhile, detectives Breer and Wallace re-examine evidence found at the scene of Bob's shooting and begin to suspect that Vanessa was telling the truth. They then search Bob's home, where they find violent child pornography in the locked shed adjacent to the house. Confronted at last with what her husband really is, Bob's wife commits suicide. Arriving home at just that moment to find police cars outside his house, Bob panics and flees to Vanessa's grandmother's house. He finds the address to the grandmother's trailer park written on the back of a photograph Vanessa had on her.

While posing as a prostitute, Vanessa steals a car from a prospective john and drives to her grandmother's house. Vanessa finds Bob lying in wait with a gun. Paralleling the big bad wolf in the classic children's tale, Little Red Riding Hood, he is in the grandmother's bed wearing her nightgown and nightcap with the covers pulled up to his nose. The animated opening credits of the movie actually foreshadow this climax with the big bad wolf assiduously pursuing Little Red Riding Hood. Vanessa is even seen carrying a basket in the movie. Bob reveals himself and then Vanessa sees her grandmother's dead body on the floor. A fierce struggle ensues culminating in Vanessa strangling Bob. Detectives Breer and Wallace arrive and approach the trailer cautiously with their guns drawn when they hear the commotion inside. Vanessa eventually exits the trailer exhausted after her struggle and the detectives enter to find Bob and Vanessa's grandmother both dead. Outside, Vanessa sits in a chair drained, near her breaking point, when she looks up to ask the detectives if they have a cigarette. They smile and Vanessa responds in kind.

Production notes[edit]

The photo that Vanessa keeps in her wallet of her biological father is a photo of mass murderer Richard Speck.


Critical reception[edit]

The film was received positively by most critics, who 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." It received "Two Thumbs Up" on Siskel and Ebert At the Movies. 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". 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". 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."[4]

Censorship history[edit]

  • The film originally received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA due to graphic language and violence.[5] It was trimmed to obtain an R rating, with the censored version being released theatrically and on VHS/DVD.[citation needed]
  • The US R-rated version of Freeway was initially rated R18+ by the Australian OFLC before the fully uncut version was refused classification. Two scenes were removed—explicit sexually abusive dialogue between Bob and Vanessa during the car trip on the I-5, and a cutaway shot of Vanessa's dead grandmother towards the end of the film—before the film was classified R18+ for release on VHS.
  • The UK (Region 2) 18 certificate version of Freeway is 98 minutes long versus the 102 minute US (Region 1) R-rated version and thus is mistakenly thought to be cut, whereas the time difference is because of normal PAL speed-up. Seven seconds were initially trimmed from the film in the UK (said to be a shot of Mimi Wolverton discovering her husband's porn magazine collection, including a magazine titled "Cock Sucking Toddlers", and the shot of Vanessa's murdered grandmother in her trailer home), but it was passed with them intact in 2007.[6]


A sequel titled Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby was released in 1999, but was largely disregarded and released direct-to-video.


  1. ^ a b "Freeway (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  2. ^ "Freeway (1996)". IMDb. Retrieved 2008-11-30. 
  3. ^ "Reese Witherspoon is a badass Little Red Riding Hood in the sordid, sleazy Freeway". Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  4. ^ McGurk, Margaret. "'Freeway' an old but alluring ride". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved 31 May 2012. 
  5. ^ "Alternate versions for Freeway (1996)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2008-11-04. 
  6. ^ "Rewind @ - Freeway (1996)". Retrieved September 9, 2012. 

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