Watching Reese Witherspoon incandesce in the role of a 16-year-old girl stumbling through the reform school of hard knocks in Freeway, I was reminded of what Pauline Kael said about John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever: "There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious." Usually, when men like Travolta convey that quality, it catapults them to stardom; when women like Drew Barrymore do it, they're considered teen queens who simply project well to the camera. (Decades ago, Tuesday Weld endured that perception problem, too.) I doubt Witherspoon will suffer the same fate, since she already boasts a varied resume. In her debut at age 14 in the 1991 weepie The Man in the Moon, she put over a "nice girl's" awakening with such unself-conscious intensity that she overpowered the movie's load of melodramatic artifice; the rest of the film has faded from memory, but I can instantly summon shots of her rapturously hugging a pillow or sizing up her first love. In Freeway, she brings excitement as well as conviction to an anti-heroine named Vanessa, who never had a chance to be a "nice girl" even if she wanted it.
The daughter of a prostitute mother (Amanda Plummer) and a crack-addict stepfather (Michael Weiss), Vanessa has salvaged a half-formed identity by force of will. Her combative, self-protective shell would suggest juvenile-delinquent cliches if Witherspoon didn't constantly express subterranean -- and molten -- feelings. We first see her struggling to sound out "The cat drinks milk" in her remedial-reading class while the teacher practices a primitive form of guided communication. Of course Vanessa looks like trouble. But she isn't malicious or sociopathic; when she finishes off that sentence, she celebrates by locking lips with her boyfriend, Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine). This girl-woman is a handful because she won't take a tumble when the world wants her to lie down. Nor will she conform to anyone's notion of a prime candidate for rehabilitation. Not preconscious but pre-moral (though she does believe in God), she'll do anything for survival. She's a feisty young animal: When faced with the menace of foster care, she recharges the meaning of "fight or flight." And when she sets out for the daydream haven of "grandmother's house" (in this case, grandmother's mobile home), only to be picked up by a notorious freeway killer, she fights and flees simultaneously.
The comic-strip opening credits feature variations on the Big Bad Wolf slavering over and menacing a perky pubescent gal. Tyro writer/director Matthew Bright holds his cards face up: He means to update Little Red Riding Hood, a fairy tale rife with erotic innuendo as well as intimations of rape. Connoisseurs of the story may realize that Bright is also taking it back to where it once belonged. As scholar/translator Jack Zipes recounts in his fascinating work of criticism and folklore The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (Routledge, 1993), the original folk tale was rooted in fears of wild animals and perverted grown-ups who attacked children walking in the woods. Folk wisdom chalked up that kind of irrational violence to black magic in general and lycanthropy in particular: Zipes notes that in the 15th and 16th centuries, charges brought against men for turning into werewolves and assaulting youngsters rivaled in number those against women for practicing witchcraft. The wolf in the Ur-story was probably a werewolf, and the girl at its center was a take-charge gal: "She shrewdly outwits the wolf and saves herself. No help from granny, hunter, or father! Clearly, the folk tale was not just a warning tale, but also a celebration of a young girl's coming of age." The literary retellers of the tale, notably Charles Perrault in France and the Brothers Grimm in Germany, were responsible for transforming it from a proto-feminist survival saga into the story of a naughty damsel in distress, punished for her sexuality.
Bright restores this miniepic's pagan awfulness and wonder while adding some upsetting and funny new wrinkles. Using contemporary folklore, he recasts it with brutally dysfunctional families and street violence and a justice system favoring the well-bred and wealthy -- the world of our media-bred paranoia, the world according to Geraldo. In the 1690s, "home" was considered safe. It isn't for this girl of the 1990s: Her stepdad molests her between puffs of his crack pipe. Yet she still prefers living with him and her trick-turning mom to foster care. At one point, she talks about staying at a place where she was considered to be "the biggest bitch" because she refused to change an old man's urine-stained sheets. Vanessa's uncensored honesty keeps us off-balance and challenges everyone around her. Primitive logic leads her to ask the female cop who helped jail her family to put her up for a while. When that doesn't work, she handcuffs her caseworker (Conchata Ferrell) to her bed, steals the woman's car, bids farewell to Chopper (who bequeaths his gun to her), and sets out for Grandmother's trailer park. And when the car breaks down, a collegiate type in an elbow-patched jacket lends her a hand.
The ominous name "Bob Wolverton" clues you in from the outset that this guy is going to be the wolf. The comic terrors of the situation (and the movie's stroke of bad-ass brilliance) emerge from the way Wolverton can suss out Vanessa's needs and with pseudo-therapy soften her up for the kill. He is, you see, a child psychologist, and he uses his professional training to set his wary friend at ease. When I reviewed A Time to Kill, I speculated, "What's next for Kiefer Sutherland -- a creature feature?" Well, he's playing a werewolf of sorts, and dang me if it isn't the right choice for him. Sutherland is superbly hypocritical as the normal-seeming Wolverton, who asks leading questions with an unruffled air that's a little too breezily empathic. He and Witherspoon are terrific at giving us the queasies, as Vanessa divulges her secrets with wrenching candor and Wolverton pushes for ever more intimate revelations. It's a nightmare illustration of paternalism's psychic sabotage. Vanessa opens up to a shrink who turns out to get off on her degradation: Her existential freeway has no exit. And just as she seals her claim on our concern and even affection, Bright seals his claim on our attention: He stages the daringly prolonged three-part sequence with equal amounts of gritty sensitivity and thriller craft, up through the horrifying moment when Vanessa realizes that Wolverton is the freeway killer. The director's choices emphasize the confusion of sexual titillation and pent-up violence, reaching an apex of creepiness when Wolverton takes a straight razor to Vanessa's ponytail.
The movie peaks in this episode and its immediate aftermath, but it doesn't peter out. As Wolverton is transformed into a physical monster (to the grief of his picture-perfect wife -- played by Brooke Shields!), and two cops, Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison, toss Vanessa into the clink, Bright appropriates the conventions of all manner of exploitation pictures, including girls-in-chains films and Latino-Latina gang chronicles. (Hedaya does a perfect deadpan working stiff; Bodison starts shakily, then finds his groove.) Bright uses genre riffs to fuel Vanessa's evolution from a crazy, misunderstood kid to a dangerous young woman who's open to anything, from knife-fighting to the love of a lesbian.
In the most explosive comic moment, Vanessa faces the man she mutilated and taunts him for getting beaten with "the ugly stick." Who beat Bright with the talent stick? I hated Bright's script for Guncrazy (directed by Tamra Davis). In Freeway, Bright and his cinematographer, the estimable John Thomas, sustain an "artploitation," fractured-fairy-tale tone to the triumphant yet volatile end. They manage to insinuate Vanessa's point of view while not obscuring the world around her: I love the subtle camera move at the beginning that reads "The cat drinks milk" from right to left and then scans over to the teacher and the classroom, as if the words were Hebrew or the language of a reading-impaired kid. Throughout, they light Witherspoon so that we can discern any hint of softness or flexibility remaining under Vanessa's hardening skin.
Freeway affects adults the way fairy tales (the unexpurgated ones, anyway) do kids: as an unruly and imaginative odyssey that offers the catharsis of "The End" rather than a predigested moral. Bright's Red Riding Hood could go either to heaven or to hell -- but at least she'll go there independently. The filmmaker has both brought her into the 21st century and respected her origins. You could say he's given her a retrofit.
"I'm the Big Bad Wolf," said Robert De Niro's killer rapist, Max Cady, in the 1991 Cape Fear. As Gil Renard, a frustrated man who seeks transcendence by following baseball and practicing murder, De Niro snorts his way through The Fan trying to be bigger and badder. He huffs and puffs and blows the house down, but it's a pathetically flimsy construction.
There was a nub of a good movie idea in Peter Abrahams' original piece of cheap fiction, contained in a scene when the title character, a divorced, down-on-his-luck hunting-knife salesman, takes his son to Opening Day at the ballpark only to have it mark the end of the semisane time of his life. Attempting to juggle his devotion to baseball, his promise to his kid, and his need to secure an important deal, he winds up in a "piss-soaked" suit and a "beery tie" -- saleless, sonless, and clueless. (It's like Multiplicity meets Falling Down.) That episode remains the linchpin of this abysmal movie, but in such laundered form that it loses its lowdown impact.
Tony Scott and the screenwriter, Phoef Sutton, play the tired Hollywood game of trying to make a character initially more attractive so that he can ultimately seem more evil. Instead of a shlub who trades on his knife-making father's famous name and sloughs off work to spend time in a sports bar, Renard is at first presented as a spokesman of disgust for American industry in decline; he threatens to become a Willy Loman who fights back, committing homicide instead of suicide. Of course, the film's Renard couldn't be mistaken for a hero: With his usual headbanging use of music, the director tips his hand right off -- he has the budding psycho listen to "Sympathy for the Devil" at screeching volume. But by rounding off Renard's rough edges, Scott sacrifices the emotional traction that can give the ugliest pulp villains their vitality and power on-screen. Rather than unveil hidden facets of Renard's character, Scott reiterates the obvious: He puts staticky noises on the soundtrack so we can't miss Renard's crackup. In Taxi Driver, the template for psycho-loner movies like this one, Martin Scorsese and De Niro went for a slow build, letting the scummy underworld of cabbie Travis Bickle settle on their viewers like the soot left on the back of the neck after a day in New York City. Scott cast De Niro, but he didn't learn from his star's early work with Scorsese, and De Niro forgot what he once knew. Everything in The Fan -- including the San Francisco setting, created partly from locations in L.A. and Anaheim -- is up close and impersonal.
When it comes to the man who is the focus and target for Renard's obsessions -- Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), superstar slugger for the Giants (in the book, for the Red Sox) -- the moviemakers are content to cobble together a more or less likable glamour-puss caught short and humanized by the only slump in his life. It's all in vain. The view of the film remains cynical and joyless, with fan Renard going nuts by living in a field of dreams and star Rayburn looking out for No. 1 (his son's a close No. 2), as any celebrity should. The "normal" fans are casually vicious, and Rayburn's teammates are surly and cliquish. What was Cal Ripken Jr. thinking when he signed on as a consultant? And what could he have taught the filmmakers about baseball or professionalism? This movie depicts incompetence and is incompetent; it portrays the overkill of pro sports with its own hideous hyperbole.
Not even William Bendix's Babe Ruth movie, or John Goodman's, has baseball scenes as clumsy and ineffectual as these. You can't tell whether Rayburn is hitting pop-ups or home runs. Scott's TV-ad-derived style of quick or jolting cutting and fancy lighting, which worked for him in high-tech testosterone spectacles like Top Gun, proves impotent in the sports arena (as it did in Days of Thunder) and in the realm of low-tech thrills where simple chronology and coherence matter. In this film, you see a puppy in the spring become a full-grown dog by midsummer; you hear about Rayburn granting an exclusive interview to the film's own Fabulous Sports Babe (Ellen Barkin) and then can't be sure it's taken place. Vignettes that should provide a humorous or emotional fillip -- like a Hasidic Jew cradling a Chihuahua and passing Renard's room as the madman tosses a hunting knife at the door -- just lie there on the screen, inert, opaque, and embarrassing. (Is the combination of a Hasid and a Chihuahua considered inherently funny?) What's more astonishing is that in several crucial scenes an audience can't tell what's going on. The initial murder plays like a dream sequence, and the climactic catastrophe is impossible to parse, though it's played out simultaneously on the field and on the Jumbotron. This movie proves that a hyperactive directorial approach can actually clog up the action.
Scott doesn't know how to impart the passing of real time to the narrative, so he strands the actors in an eternal and interminable present. Barkin and John Leguizamo (as Rayburn's agent) at least bring some snap to their bad lines. For much of the way, Snipes seems drab and mopey, as alienated from his character as his character is from his profession. And De Niro blows up like clockwork, a virtue only in a geyser. Midway through the book, Rayburn's agent watches his client do a headache pain commercial and says, "De Niro couldn't have done it any better." It's a good thing he hadn't seen the movie.
Freeway opens Friday, Aug. 23, at the Roxie. The Fan continues at area theaters.
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