A movie that puts the "trip" in "road trip."
What is it about road trips that hold such fascination for us all? There is something irresistible about the idea of traveling down a road we've never been down before. Perhaps it is some remembered echo of wanderlust that reverberates in our American culture. Whatever the reason, the appeal of road trips and road pictures is undeniable, as we see when we look at Highway, the first grunge culture road picture, so far as I know.
Facts of the Case
Jack (Jared Leto—Requiem For A Dream, American Psycho, Fight Club) and his buddy Pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal—Bubble Boy, Donny Darko, October Sky) are what one might call white-trash losers. They live in Las Vegas, where Jack works as a pool boy and Pilot works as a lifeguard at a therapy pool, at least when he's not dealing drugs.
When Jack is caught maintaining more than just the pool at the Miranda residence, Mr. Miranda sends out his group of thugs—"Miranda's Pandas"—to break Jack's feet. This is a punishment that Pilot assures us is "completely Gothic." In order to preserve Jack's feet the two hit the road, bound for Seattle. Why Seattle? Pilot says that there is no particular reason, but he secretly sees it as an opportunity to meet up with Amy, his long-lost love from a graduation party two years earlier. The two set out on a drug-fueled quest to reach the Emerald City.
Along the way the two rescue Cassie (Selma Blair—Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions, Kill Me Later), a mysterious hitchhiker who is about to be taken advantage of by her latest ride. She joins the buddies and they continue on their journey. Along the way they meet up with Johnny the Fox (John C. McGinley—Scrubs, Wall Street, Office Space), a drug dealer and free spirit who tells them that a lot of their kind of people are converging on Seattle for a vigil for Kurt Cobain, who recently killed himself.
Meanwhile, back in "The Veg," the Pandas rough up Pilot's drug supplier, Scawldy (Jeremy Piven—Black Hawk Down, Grosse Point Blank, PCU). They find out that Jack and Pilot are headed to Seattle, and set out to find them and complete the all-important task of breaking Jack's feet.
With this, the race is on, in a road picture like no other.
There is something raw and vibrant about Highway. Beneath its seeming collection of clichés and non-sequiturs, there is an energy and life. There is a slice of modern America that we don't often see captured in its grunge subculture of drugs and music and sex.
The characters at first glance look like cardboard cutouts or perhaps refugees from a Cheech and Chong flick. Pilot is the classic "stoner" character, Jack is the classic stud. However, they are also more than that. We get a look at their dysfunctional home and family life, and how they grew up bereft of most of the normal support mechanisms that help us turn out as relatively normal adults. In a series of grainy flashbacks we see them as kids and see the roots of their unbreakable friendship. The Cassie character should by all rights be a terrible cliché as well: the Hooker with the Heart of Gold (tm). She rises above this status on the strength of a good performance by Selma Blair and better writing than you might expect.
While Blair, Leto, and Gyllenhaal all turn in good performances, some of the supporting cast members really shine as well. Jeremy Piven is always a blast in any movie, and here he is quite memorable as Scawldy, Pilot's ranting, rambling drug supplier. Scawldy plays a small but pivotal role in the plot, and could have been a totally forgettable character. However, Piven kicks him up several notches and makes him bitingly funny and almost over the top.
Highway was directed by James Cox. According to his IMDb bio, Mr. Cox was "plucked out of NYU before graduating by New Line in order to direct [Highway]." Apparently, someone at New Line was so impressed with Cox's student film work that he got the golden opportunity to make this film. The results are quite good, especially for a director's first big feature. He is competent throughout, and is not afraid to employ some interesting stylistic touches from time to time. This is especially apparent during scenes of drug use, where he uses repeated dialogue and quick cuts that frequently break the hallowed "thirty degree rule" in order to create a sense of disorientation.
The script by Scott Rosenberg is full of dialogue that is fresh and witty without being overly cute. The banter between Jack and Pilot feels smooth and natural, two friends who have developed a complex verbal shorthand through a lifetime of growing up together. Cassie gets her share of good lines too, and is often the most intelligent and sensitive of the whole gang. Rosenberg does include some stylized, tongue in cheek bits of dialogue, but they are not overdone and blend in well with the mostly natural words that come out of the characters' mouths.
Highway sports an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. The good news is that the picture is sharp and clear, with no scratches, nicks, or other source defects. Fine textures and small details are excellent. Colors are rich and vibrant, and black levels are solid and fully saturated. Shadow detail is very good, capturing all the subtle gradations of darkness. The bad news is that reds are oversaturated and appear to bloom a bit. Also, there is a massive amount of edge enhancement visible in a number of scenes. It was enough to be noticeable on my mid-range consumer system, so I'm guessing that it will be a major problem for those with higher-end home theater gear.
The main audio track is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This is a dialogue-heavy film, so the majority of the action comes out of the front soundstage. This track is very nice and clear, and dialogue comes through cleanly. The surrounds get used primarily for the alternative/metal/grunge soundtrack, but they are also used for some ambient sound effects and some directional effects such as vehicle drive-bys. The only real downfall of the audio track seems to be a lack of bass response, which is surprising for such a rock music-intensive movie. The music often comes across as a bit weak as a result of this lack of bass support.
Unfortunately, New Line did not see fit to put any extra features on this disc. No cast bios, no production notes, not so much as a measly trailer. It's a shame, because this is an interesting movie that could have benefited from some behind-the-scenes insight.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two main areas of Highway that will be problematic for a number of people. First, there is a lot of very frank drug use in this film. Pilot, as an example, goes through almost the entire movie under the influence of one drug or another, as does Johnny the Fox and other people they meet on their travels. All of these scenes can be taken in context, and perhaps they aren't overly offensive, but one scene in particular stands out. Early in the film, while Pilot is working as a lifeguard, he is working on a drug deal, trying to sell some 'shrooms. The problem with this scene is that his customer is a kid who looks to be eight to ten years old. Yes, drug dealers in the real world do sometimes try to sell to kids that young, but there is a sense that this scene is played somewhat for laughs, and that makes it a highly questionable inclusion, at least in the eyes of this reviewer.
The other area of concern is the amount of gratuitous sexuality. Jack's misadventures as a pool guy are an important part of the plot of the film; however, I don't believe we needed to see them in quite the detail that is provided. The scene is fairly explicit, and again is played mostly for laughs. We also learn early on in the movie about Jack and Pilot's respective sexual dysfunctions, which they aim to cure by making a pit stop at the Dan D. Fine—a local brothel in a small town outside of Las Vegas. This actually winds up revealing an important plot point later on, but the scene overall is gratuitous. Interspersed with all this are numerous crude sexual conversations, notably from Jack's father early on in the movie. In most cases, the scenes of sexuality do not add much to the film, except for some titillation and the opportunity for some juvenile snickering. In fairness, these scenes are all accomplished with a bare minimum of nudity, but it is still pretty clear what is going on.
Beyond these problems, Highway does fall into some of the pitfalls inherent in its characters. Pilot in particular becomes tiresome at times, when his stoner lifestyle threatens to become a one-note characterization. This is no fault of Jake Gyllenhaal, but rather it is a problem with a script that forces him to stay in the same gear too long. The other character that stays stuck in the same mode for too long is John C. McGinley's Johnny the Fox. McGinley does a great job in the role, filling the character with creepy intensity and hallucinogenic energy, but the character seems mostly superfluous in the course of the movie. One drug-dealing stoner is quite enough, and once Johnny the Fox tells the others about the suicide and vigil for Kurt Cobain his real usefulness to the story is pretty much over. Unfortunately, he sticks around anyway as a sort of comic relief sidekick.
I liked Highway, but I'm not sure how heartily I'd recommend it. It certainly isn't for everyone; the high drug, sex, and profanity quotient will be off-putting to a lot of potential viewers. Still, there is something engrossing about this film, in they way that it takes old clichés and gives them just enough spin to be interesting, and in the way it takes stock characters and gives them some manner of soul.
Jack, Pilot, and the rest are free to go. Just try to avoid the Pandas, okay guys?
New Line gets off on a split decision. The disc looks and sounds nice, but shafting us on extra content had better not be something they plan to get used to.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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