If you only know the perfectly lovely Reese Witherspoon from Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama or last year’s Oscars ceremony, then prepare yourself for a severe shock if you ever watch Matthew Bright’s ferocious, white-trash fairy tale.
Gone is the pretty, wholesome, down-to-earth kind of gal who only finds the positives in life, and instead we have a foul-mouthed, violent, desperate young slut who makes poor decisions, lies, cheats and is essentially in need of a big hug from David Cameron. When asked for her warped motives she screams “‘Cause I’m pissed off and the world owes me.”
She plays Vanessa Lutz, an obnoxious teenage juvenile delinquent living in abusive squalor with her prostitute mother and crack-head paedophile step-father.
When her mother is arrested for soliciting, our “heroine” escapes from her caring but naïve social worker and hits the road, hunting for the grandmother she has never met in the hope of a normal life, rather than being put back into a foster home.
While hitching on the I-5, she is picked up by Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a respectable-looking counsellor at a school for troubled boys. During the journey, he slowly earns her trust, and eventually convinces her to open up and tell him about the abuse she has suffered at the hands of her step-father. It’s then that she realises he is taking an inordinate amount of pleasure from what she is telling him.
Oh, and a killer of young women is on the loose…
This low-budget trailer-park Little Red Riding Hood is a beguiling mix of quite-sweet comedy and uncompromising brutality, taking the fairy-tale conventions of whimsy and threat and amplifying them until they are just a screaming distortion of their previous forms.
The children in peril are thieves, sluts and desperate lesbians, their predators are powerful men driven uncontrollably by the basest of instincts, the victims are delusional morons desperate to maintain their idyllic fantasy in a rapidly crumbling reality.
But to dismiss it as a single-mindedly nasty exploitation flick is to ignore both the skill with which it has been constructed and the intelligence of the performances.
Sutherland is subtly revolting as the “is he/isn’t he” serial killer and Brooke Shields sends herself up quite brilliantly as his faithful wife. Even as the evidence mounts against him, she refuses to believe her white-picket world is anything less than perfect, and only when confronted by her husband’s dubious taste in literature, does she start to doubt her view of the situation. That said, her solution to the problems she faces is marvellously realised.
However, it is Reese Witherspoon’s film. Even as a gloating, leering, ignorant hoodie, she still miraculously manages to make an audience sympathise with her. Her dialogue, always in perfect keeping with her white-trash image, is often chillingly warped - “What, you’re gonna do sex to me when I’m dead?” and yet also emotionally resonant - “I felt like I had been transformed into a human urinal”.
Her doomed journey into the woods of adult perversity is, unsettlingly, both sobering and hilarious - sort of Larry Clark crossed with Quentin Tarantino.
So if you are prepared to enter a seedy slice of life that is rarely touched upon, this is a film that deserves to be seen. But be prepared to never look at sweet little Reese in the same way again.