The Big Picture
- Freeway takes the classic tale of Little Red Riding Hood and transforms it into a dark, thrilling, and morally twisted film.
- Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Vanessa, a juvenile delinquent with a troubled past, is perfectly cast and showcases her raw talent.
- The gritty urban setting of South Los Angeles adds a unique twist to the story, as Vanessa navigates the dangerous streets in her quest to find safety.
Before Reese Witherspoon became a household name around the world with performances in hits like Election and Legally Blonde, she was a young actress who was looking for stepping-stone roles in Hollywood. Big Little Lies, Wild, and the Apple TV+ hit The Morning Show, which is well into its third season, along with her production company Hello Sunshine, have cemented Witherspoon as a true power broker in both film and TV. But every legend has early films that both show us why they went on to become legends and also how far they have come in their careers. In 1996, Witherspoon made a film called Freeway and to say that it is fucked up bonkers is a massive understatement. How can you take a legendary children’s tale and turn it into a maelstrom of sex, drugs, and murder? Cast Reese Witherspoon in the part of Little Red Riding Hood, sit back and enjoy the dark-as-hell ride with her, Kiefer Sutherland, and director Matthew Bright who set out to have a morbid good time with classic material and succeeded.
Is ‘Freeway’ Based on Little Red Riding Hood?
The two most well-known versions of Little Red Riding Hood were written by the Brothers Grimm and French author Charles Perrault. It is without a doubt one of the most told and handed down pieces of literature on Earth, and there have been numerous Little Red Riding Hood adaptations and allusions taken from it over the last several hundred years. We all know the story, right? A little girl named Little Red Riding Hood travels through the forest to deliver a basket of food to her ailing grandmother only to be stalked and ambushed by the Big Bad Wolf who, according to which translation you read, either has swallowed her grandmother whole or locked her in the closet. It’s a great story and one that has all the natural elements and plot devices of a dramatic work. There’s a loving relationship, innocence, evil, and ultimately a perfect twist that had us all spellbound as children. Well, throw all that out the window! Aside from the basic storyline about a girl going to visit her grandmother, Freeway is a deliciously thrilling maelstrom crawling with all manner of insidious modern behaviors and horrifically immoral criminals.
Why Was Reese Witherspoon Perfect For the Role of Vanessa in ‘Freeway’?
Reese Witherspoon was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and spent most of her formative years in the southern part of the United States. What Bright is counting on in Freeway is that you absolutely buy into the stereotypical trailer park southerner that Witherspoon can do so well. Her drawl isn’t rehearsed or practiced, it is organic, and if you combine that with the spitfire attitude and raw talent that Witherspoon oozes, the fact that our Little Red Riding Hood is a juvenile delinquent who curses like a sailor is utterly believable and perfectly cast. She comes from a mobile home where her mother (a great turn by veteran actress Amanda Plummer) is a sex worker and her stepfather is batshit crazy pedophile addicted to meth. It sounds like we have all the ingredients of not only an antihero but the exact opposite of the sweet and virtuous character void of a backstory that we knew as kids. Throwing in a perverted and diabolically twisted character like Kiefer Sutherland as The Big Bad Wolf, or Bob Wolverton, and the two main pieces are squarely in place. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a direct reference to watching Freeway not only based on Reese’s performance but also Kiefer’s character Bob Wolverton in a head and neck traction device with a drooling issue. It’s dark comedy gold!
Reese Witherspoon Takes a Very Different Path to See Her Grandmother in ‘Freeway’
You would think that Freeway would be set somewhere in the South or perhaps Appalachia, but it’s not. Instead, Vanessa is from the hardscrabble streets of South Los Angeles where she has a troubled but doting fiancée who is also a drug dealer named Chopper Wood (Bokeem Woodbine). There is a comedic aspect of Vanessa in an otherwise grisly tone that only an actress as talented as Witherspoon can create. She’s 18 and even though she still attends class somewhat regularly, she doesn’t know how to read – and doesn’t give a shit about it or what you think of her. Vanessa does what makes Vanessa happy combined with whatever it takes to survive stuck between a spectacularly broken home and living on the streets. So after Chopper is gunned down in a gang-related murder and her parents are imprisoned, she is on her own and becomes the epitome of a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood. But instead of frolicking through the forest with a basket of muffins to seek out a safe haven with her grandmother, she carefully walks the dangerous concrete of the urban sprawl. She is streetwise, but still, just a teenager with a devil-may-care attitude that comes with being dealt such a bad hand in life. So when she makes the mistake of catching a right with Bob Wolverton to begin her journey, things get hideous, really fast.
How Does ‘Freeway’ Differ From Little Red Riding Hood?
The biggest difference between the gritty 1996 film and the classic fairy tale is in the fleshed-out backstory of the main character. We already know that Reese Witherspoon’s Vanessa is an irreparably damaged teenager who has grown up with childhood trauma. When she hitchhikes a ride with a seemingly normal and wholesome thirty-something man, it comes across as something a girl in her position would do. When director Bright portrays the Big Bad Wolf as a lewd and sexually perverted predator, it works and Sutherland can do the sicko like none other (Lost Boys, Stand By Me). When Bob pushes Vanessa too far with his lascivious line of questioning, things go off the rails as tiny Vanessa objects and the two end up struggling over Bob’s gun. Eventually. Vanessa gets the upper hand and empties the clip into him. Thinking she has killed him she continues on her journey. But a bloodied Bob survives and Vanessa ends up in a juvenile detention center for young girls.
Reese Witherspoon Has Powerful Presence On and Off-Screen
Freeway is truly the first time viewers get to see Reese Witherspoon in her power. Her presence on screen has so much to do with her vibrant charisma and exuberance that you end up forgetting that she is so small, physically. Her misguided and misdirected bravado and a pitch-perfect Southern drawl make for the perfect storm and the reason we can’t take our eyes off of her when she is in front of the camera (I can say this because I have lived in Georgia and Texas my entire life). Freeway and Witherspoon are proof that strong women come in all shapes and sizes. All of this is to say that it’s very poetic that Witherspoon has formed one of the most prominent book clubs in the country at reesesbookclub.com and is an avid reader. All hail, Queen Reese and her dynamic career that is still going a million miles per hour.