Underage prostitution, teenage illiteracy, drug abuse, serial murder, prison violence, racism, drive-by shootings, corruption and hatred. If you made a straight list of the horrors contained in this movie, it would look like misery porn to rival Requiem for a Dream. But in the twisted hands of first-time director Matthew Bright, those things all add up to a wonderfully unhinged, blackly comic thriller… that also just happens to be based on “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Bright’s odd career started when he played identical twins in Richard and Danny Elfman’s bizarro trash musical Forbidden Zone — a childhood friend of Danny’s, he was part of the experimental theatrical troupe that would eventually evolve into the band Oingo Boingo. After contributing scripts to a few little-remembered* B-movies, he was given the opportunity to make the shift into direction, apparently after a chance meeting with Oliver Stone; with a big name on board as producer, Bright was free to unleash his creative vision on the world — and he immediately created something that cheerfully borrows attitude from Natural Born Killers, but with plenty of wild tricks of its own.
The film throws us straight into the messy life of Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon). An illiterate teen, she gets a ride home from her Special Ed class with her boyfriend (Bokeem Woodbine) to the motel room she shares with her racist prostitute mother and abusive crack addict stepfather. Within minutes of our introduction to their charming family dynamic, mom is arrested by a plain-clothes cop; naturally, given his drugged-up mania, stepdad isn’t far behind. Faced with the possibility of a return to the foster system, Vanessa handcuffs her social worker to the bed, puts on her bright red jacket and flees with her boyfriend’s gun in a wicker basket. Seconds after she departs, he is fatally shot in a drive-by. Are you laughing yet?
The truth is, Vanessa’s problems are only just getting started. When her car breaks down on the freeway, she is offered a ride by charming but unsubtly named psychologist Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland). He quickly gets her talking about her life, and before long she’s confessing that she trusts him “more than she ever trusted anyone.” So naturally it comes as a huge disappointment to find out that he’s the serial killer who has been all over the news lately… and he’s closing in on his next victim.
The showdown between the wolf and Little Red is the focus of the fairy tale that Freeway borrows from, and Bob and Vanessa deliver the fireworks. His charm convinces her to let her guard down completely, and only then does he show his true colours — sneering and full of hate, his work with troubled teens has left him full of disdain for the human race. But the amount of shit that Vanessa has already had to deal with in her short life has left her extremely well equipped to deal with any abuse thrown her way, and she’s able to quickly and brilliantly tip the balance in her favour. With a prayer and a few shots from her boyfriend’s gun, she leaves Bob for dead at the roadside and wanders into a diner covered in his blood.
The film sidesteps a little here, and what may have seemed like a relative to The Hitcher’s tale of ride-sharing-gone-wrong branches out in unexpected directions. You see, Big Bad Bob survived the shooting — and just as he warned Vanessa during their twisted heart-to-heart, the police are far more likely to believe his story than that of an underage repeat-offender. And so, we get to see Vanessa’s unique skillset flourish in a young offenders institution, as well as courtroom scenes where she is totally, 100% unable to keep a straight face when she sees the state that she left Bob in.
The spectre of “Little Red Riding Hood” continues to hang over the movie, of course — and so it’s inevitable that Bob and Vanessa are going to face off one more time… at Grandmother’s house. The film’s ending pushes fairy tale logic brilliantly; there’s no way Vanessa is getting away with all of the stuff she’s done over the course of this movie. but this isn’t the kind of movie that needs to face up to that. She’s an incredible antihero and, if you squint a little, she gets her fairy-tale ending.
Bright’s tight script has just as much fun with police interrogations, prison fights (and friendships) and courtroom anarchy, with Vanessa reacting to every new hurdle with fearless calm and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lowbrow wisecracks and guilelessness. The miracle of this movie is the way that Bright’s gallows humour and Witherspoon’s incredible performance stop the parade of horrific events from ever feeling depressing or overwhelming; Vanessa is a match for anyone and anything, whether it’s a serial killer, a prejudiced cop, or the toughest girl in prison. Kiefer Sutherland’s work as the villain is also first rate, switching from charm to sheer evil at the perfect moment. The supporting cast is stacked too, with Dan Hedaya an ever-welcome presence as the sensible half of a cop duo with livewire Wolfgang Bodison, Brooke Shields perfectly cast as Bob’s clueless socialite wife, and even Brittany Murphy showing up as Vanessa’s (extremely horny, heroin-addicted) prison pal.
Sadly, Bright wouldn’t reach these heights again; he made a semi-sequel to this film that riffs on “Hansel and Gretel” but turns up the trashiness (several levels) too far, then a fairly solid Ted Bundy movie before flaming out once and for all after the disastrous Tiptoes, which inexplicably managed to get Gary Oldman, Matthew McConaughey, Patricia Arquette and Kate Beckinsale on board for a film in which Oldman plays McConaughey’s dwarf brother. Burned out and sick of the studio system, apparently Bright moved to Mexico, and, despite some rumours of TV work, he doesn’t seem to have resurfaced since. It’s a shame — there are few filmmakers who could have nailed the tone of this film and plenty of fairy tales left to retell.
* Bright’s writing credits are a mixed bag, but Shrunken Heads, Modern Vampires, and especially Dark Angel: The Ascent are all really good fun, and full of his trademark dark humour.