“Freeway” is roadkill. The directorial debut of screenwriter Matthew Bright (“Gun Crazy”) is a sophomoric and morally repellent mix of fractured fairy tale, juvenile social satire, bloody mayhem and overstated B-movie melodrama. This is the kind of pic in which the nude, bound corpse of an elderly woman is presented as a sight gag. In the unlikely event it gets theatrical exposure, most audiences will avoid it like a bad stretch of bumpy road.
Reese Witherspoon snarls and pouts her way through the lead role as Vanessa, a surly and illiterate 16-year-old with more attitude than common sense. When her hooker mom (Amanda Plummer) and drug-addled stepfather (Michael Weiss) are hauled off by the cops, Vanessa rebels against being placed in foster care. So, like some modern-day Red Riding Hood, she picks up a basket and heads off to find the grandmother she has never met.
When her car breaks down on the freeway, she gets a ride from a real Big Bad Wolf: Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a soft-spoken, seemingly friendly and sympathetic child psychologist. But it doesn’t take long for even the slow-witted heroine to notice that he takes perverse delight in her descriptions of sexual abuse. It takes only a bit longer for Vanessa to realize Wolverton is the dreaded “I-5 Killer,” a serial murderer who preys on young women.
Vanessa manages to turn the tables, with the help of a gun she obtained from her boyfriend before hitting the road. She shoots Wolverton several times, empties his wallet, leaves him for dead in a secluded wooded area and drives off in his car. Unfortunately, Wolverton miraculously survives, and alerts the police. Because Vanessa has a criminal record, no one believes her claims of self-defense, and she is shipped off to a juvenile facility to await trial — while Wolverton, maimed and partially incapacitated, is treated by the media as some kind of hero.
Bright presents most of this in a luridly exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek fashion, which makes the sudden eruptions of realistic violence all the more unsettling. Things only get worse at the juvenile facility, where Vanessa brutally beats a threatening inmate, wards off the advances of a simple-minded lesbian and generally behaves like the heroine of some low-rent women-behind-bars melodrama.
Eventually, she escapes and poses as a streetwalker in order to rob pathetic johns at gunpoint. Meanwhile, two cops (Dan Hedaya, Wolfgang Bodison) find evidence that proves her story. When they find additional proof at Wolverton’s home, his wife (Brooke Shields) shoots herself. The cops find her in the bathroom with her brains splattered on the wall. This, too, is meant to be funny. It isn’t.
“Freeway” is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, the product of a filmmaker with a ludicrously misplaced confidence in his own cleverness. Pic is so cartoonish and mean-spirited, it is impossible to work up sympathy for anyone onscreen. Even Vanessa comes across as a one-dimensional pawn in this tedious game. Witherspoon tries hard — too hard, really — but she can do little to make the character anything more substantial than the butt of a long, sick joke.
Given the circumstances, Sutherland’s attempt to play Wolverton relatively straight is admirable, if not wholly successful. Among the supporting players, Hedaya is a standout, if only because he, too, evidences some degree of restraint.
One of the pic’s few saving graces is a genuinely witty opening-credits sequence replete with twisted “Little Red Riding Hood” imagery. Danny Elfman’s obnoxious musical score works overtime at cueing the audience when to giggle. Other tech credits are serviceable.