For those of you who have always wanted to see Juliette Binoche play a foul-mouthed truck driver — and you know who you are — “Paradise Highway” delivers the goods, and then some. This counterintuitive casting is actually just one of the selling points for writer-director Anna Gutto’s solid and satisfying thriller, a shrewdly constructed melodrama that does not transcend cliches and conventions so much as show how useful and effective they can be in the right hands.
Offering a précis of the plot could arguably do the movie a disservice, since the narrative pivots on human trafficking — specifically, the trafficking of prepubescent girls. It’s a subject that often brings out the excessive worst in even the most well-intentioned directors, and more often elicits an understandable “thanks, but no thanks” response from many potential viewers. Throughout “Paradise Highway,” however, Gutto demonstrates welcome restraint and a meticulous avoidance of anything that resembles exploitation, relying on indirect yet impactful allusions to keep us constantly aware of the mortal stakes involved. All in all, this is a singularly promising debut for a first-time feature filmmaker.
Sally (Binoche), a trucker who hauls freight across the Southeast, gets involved in evil inadvertently, if not accidentally. True, she regularly carries satchels of contraband in the cab of her rig, but only to guarantee the safety of her criminally inclined brother Dennis (an aptly ambiguous Frank Grillo), who is subject to brutal beatdowns by fellow prison inmates if she doesn’t play along. The siblings are co-dependent survivors of an abusive childhood, which makes their bond all the stronger. In fact, except for Dennis, Sally is a loner with no apparent human connections other than other female long-haulers with whom she joshes on her CB radio.
Days before Dennis’ release, Sally agrees to what she assumes will be one last transport of illicit cargo. At first, she strongly objects when told the job will entail taking a little girl, Leila (Hala Finley), across state lines to be used and abused. But when she’s reminded of what might happen to Dennis if she doesn’t comply — well, Sally does her best to keep Leila at arm’s length emotionally until the delivery is made. Things change at the drop-off point, however, when Leila grabs the shotgun Sally keeps in the cab for protection and blasts the creep who’s ready to take delivery. After that, survival instincts, not maternal feelings, kick in. “You may have shot him,” Sally angrily snaps at Leila as she puts pedal to the metal, “but I left him there to die.”
You might think that it’s only a matter of time before the hard-bitten trucker and the resourceful yet frightened little girl recognize what they have in common — industrial-grade emotional scars, for starters — and start to trust each other while on the lam. And, of course, you would be correct in making that assumption. But the thawing of hearts and the lowering of guards take a bit longer in “Paradise Highway” than is common in movies built around such initially contentious relationships. Not only does that enhance the credibility of the plot; it also gives the well-cast leads time to bring out the best in each other, as the young newcomer rises to the level of the Oscar-winning veteran’s game.
Meanwhile, Sally and Leila are pursued by representatives of the traffickers, who craftily employ subcontractors during an especially suspenseful truck stop sequence, and Gerick (Morgan Freeman), a former FBI agent who now works as a “consultant” for the Bureau, thereby allowing him to break even more rules than he did as a federal employee while hunting flesh peddlers. Gerick is partnered, whether he wants to be or not, with a novice special agent, Sterling (Cameron Monaghan), who does everything by the book until he learns better under Gerick’s tutelage. Both of these characters are fairly shameless stereotypes, but the actors play them convincingly — Gerick’s penchant for obscenity likely would be quite tiresome if anyone other than Freeman were launching the F-bombs — and their reactions to evidence of child exploitation help bring a sense of gravity to the proceedings.
Credit DP John Christian Rosenlund for vividly conveying everything from the vaguely menacing look of a neon-lit truck stop late at night to the sense of boundless freedom during daytime drives through naturally beautiful locales. The clever choices of pop tunes on the soundtrack is a plus — note the neat balance of Blondie’s original “One Way or Another” and a dreamier cover by composer Anné Kulonen and Philip Kay — and the sisterhood-is-powerful twist to the third-act resolution is an inspired payoff to elements planted in the opening scene. Speaking of which, that opening scene is where the film attempts to justify Binoche’s accent. You see, she’s from Canada. Hey, whatever works.