The Big Picture

  • Reese Witherspoon stars in a dark, twisted adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood,
    as a street-smart Vanessa Lutz.
  • Vanessa faces a dangerous journey to escape her troubled life and finds herself in the clutches of a serial killer, Bob Wolverton played by Kiefer Sutherland.
  • Witherspoon’s powerful performance showcases her versatility, foreshadowing her future success in Hollywood.

Growing up, the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood was required reading worldwide. For many, it introduced children everywhere to the dangers of wandering off alone and that you can’t trust everyone you meet. When the Big Bad Wolf kills the young child’s grandmother, it is downright scary. Only the mind of a former member of the ’80s troupe “The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo,” Matthew Bright, could conjure up a modern adaptation of the classic cautionary tale as twisted, dark, and unhinged as the Reese Witherspoon-led Freeway. Kiefer Sutherland, Brooke Shields, Dan Hedaya, and Brittany Murphy also make up the cast of this terrific indie movie. The symbolism and metaphorical associations fly at the viewer fast and furious as Witherspoon’s Vanessa gets a baptism by fire and ventures out on her own to find any form of love and acceptance.

What Is ‘Freeway’ About?

Witherspoon was starting her prolific and decorated career when she broke out with her bizarre take on the strong-willed and street-smart Vanessa Lutz, who, to escape her deadbeat parents (Amanda Plummer, Michael T. Weiss), gang-member boyfriend Chipper Wood (Bokeem Woodbine), and depressing trailer park life in Los Angeles, sets out on a dangerous journey to seek safe harbor at her grandmother’s house across town. Needless to say, the wheels come off quickly for Vanessa, who can barely read but has a survivor’s mentality. Her instincts kick into overdrive when a predatory, perverted serial killer named Bob Wolverton (Sutherland) is waiting to pounce on the down-on-her-luck heroine. Bob initially seems like a good Samaritan, but his vicious and cruel true nature becomes evident within just a few hours of picking up the stranded Vanessa, and the movie only gets darker and more disturbing with every scene.

Witherspoon pulled from her Louisiana roots to turn on the hardscrabble southern drawl she uses in Freeway. When Bob insults and denigrates her, she pops electric with her foul-mouthed but fearless demeanor. When Bob threatens to rape her, Witherspoon is amazing in a role that is intended to portray her as both vulnerable and afraid. Still, her presence on screen is enormous. Her confidence and control of the dark turn of events was an early sign that she would be a huge Hollywood star. There are early signs of the comedic elements she would hone in Legally Blonde and the dramatic bona fides she has shown in recent performances.


This Is Reese Witherspoon’s Most Underrated Performance

The Reese we know and love is subtly subversive in this classic ’90s teen thriller.

After Bob admits that he is the Freeway serial killer and tries to rape Vanessa, she outmaneuvers the much larger man and holds a pistol to his head. In this moment, she takes control of the situation and her character arc. She has a bravado and attitude that is impossible for such a slight, diminutive actress. Make no mistake, this disturbing film features her in a way that we have never seen before or since. She deftly interweaves a genuine naïveté with a kick-ass physicality, becoming an anti-heroine. After her first near-death encounter with Bob, she whimsically strolls into a diner, her face covered in his blood. It is just the beginning of the cat-and-mouse game in Freeway that is as brutal as unflinching.

Reese Witherspoon Takes No Prisoners in ‘Freeway’

Vanessa doesn’t have what you would call a healthy respect for authority. When the cops (Hedaya, Wolfgang Bodison) pick her up for what she did to Bob, she is less than cooperative. No one is safe from Vanessa’s angry and mean streak. She has a handful of racially charged epithets for the hard-charging Detective Breer (Bodison). Not only is the subject matter in Freeway gory and graphic but the rampant racist remarks that she lets fly would never see the big screen today, making the movie a product of a bygone time. After a brutally injured Bob presses charges and a quick trial, she is remanded into an all-female juvenile detention center, where we meet two of the standout supporting players in the movie. Brittany Murphy is Rhonda, a sexually charged fellow inmate, and Alanna Ubach is Mesquita, the tough girl in the cell block. Witherspoon brings an A+ level of energy to the movie and immediately proves to Mesquita that she isn’t going to take shit from anybody, leaving her bloodied on the concrete floor. While in prison, she finally gets diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder, only confirming the obvious.

Vanessa Takes Full Ownership of Her Dire Circumstances in ‘Freeway’

Reese Witherspoon as Vanessa, smiling widely while Mascara runs down her face, in Freeway
Image via Republic Pictures

Even though Vanessa lashes out with violence in nearly every scene, her actions are justifiable to a degree. Young people without parents or guardians are extremely vulnerable people, and most of the slimeballs that Vanessa unleashes on are sexually deviant perverts who have it coming to them. What Bright and Witherspoon do so effectively in Freeway is avoiding making Vanessa the helpless “babe in the woods.” She doesn’t see herself as a victim, and with each dark and deadly turn, she reclaims a greater sense of power and independence to survive. She uses their weakness and feeds off it, becoming stronger and more confident as she heads into the big showdown with the ever-present Big Bad Wolf in the film’s final sequence.

By the time Vanessa makes it to her Grandma’s trailer in the final scene of Freeway, she has transformed from a foul-mouthed, troublemaker into a full-fledged badass. As Bob lies under the covers trying to lure Vanessa closer, she doesn’t buy it. She tells the Big Bad Wolf, “Those are some fuckin’ big, ugly teeth you got there, Bob!” The two scuffle as Bob pulls another gun, but again, it is Vanessa who, by this point in the film, is no longer the hunted but the hunter. Witherspoon brings the movie to a fitting conclusion, showing tremendous athleticism and physicality, choking Bob to death. With her mascara running down her face, she goes outside to meet Detectives Garner and Breer, and they all enjoy a spooky-as-hell laugh together.

Freeway should be appreciated as an outlier in the dynamic and versatile actor’s storied career. It is easily her most twisted and macabre performance. She would go on to break the bank in comedies and romcoms like Sweet Home Alabama before graduating into an Oscar-winning dramatic turn in Wild. Some of the shows she has produced and starred in, like Big Little Lies on HBO and The Morning Show on AppleTV+, show that Witherspoon still has enormous charisma that elevates every project she undertakes.

Freeway is currently available to stream on Prime Video in the U.S.


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