Film Reviews

A Real Wreck

Highwaymen is much like its villain, a former automobile insurance man who cruises the nation's freeways in search of young women to run down in order to create his own brand-new crash photos. Behind the wheel of his '72 El Dorado, Fargo (Colm Feore) is an amalgam of the hinges and screws and scrap metal that hold him together; he's more mishmash than man, like some horrific trash-heap sculpture that's come to life and decided to kill for grins. The movie is likewise just bits and pieces of junkyard detritus welded together: a radiator yanked from Duel, an alternator lifted from Joy Ride, an axle pulled from Christine, a cracked windshield yanked off Crash and a hundred other spare parts stolen from The Hitcher, the 1986 bloody wreck starring Rutger Hauer as a killer behind the wheel of an American land cruiser and C. Thomas Howell as the kid he picks up, then toys with and frames for several murders along the service road to hell. If Highwaymen seems especially reminiscent of the latter, bear in mind both were directed by Robert Harmon, who apparently aims to do for driving what Spielberg once did for swimming and what Fear Factor does for eating.

In the end, Harmon's movies play like multimillion-dollar remakes of Wheels of Tragedy and Highways of Agony, the ghastly instructional shockers circulated throughout high schools in the '60s and '70s by the Highway Safety Foundation. Like their scare-'em-stupid predecessors, The Hitcher and now Highwaymen are filled with images of men and women getting obliterated by moving metal and reduced to blood, guts and gristle; their soundtracks are likewise the same, filled to eardrum-bursting with the ghastly shrieks of the about-to-die.

Harmon only pretends to make movies about good vs. evil, the strong vs. the weak, the sane vs. the nuts; as a filmmaker, he's nothing more than a driver's-ed instructor with a fetish for the car-crash stats recounted in Highwaymen by a therapist trying to heal men and women injured, physically and psychologically, in car accidents. Eight thousand people are involved in auto accidents every day, says the counselor, which adds up to three million a year -- "and 50,000 of us die every year," he says, emphasizing "of us" to further terrify the audience that has to get into its cars after the movie.

Highwaymen is The Hitcher with a few modifications: The villain is given some motivation; the hero (played by Jim Caviezel, shortly to visit the multiplex as Mel Gibson's Christ) is less victim than vigilante; and the girl (The Practice's Rhona Mitra) doesn't suffer the same monstrous fate visited upon Jennifer Jason Leigh 16 years ago. In fact, the new movie almost exists as if to apologize for its predecessor's inexplicable, inexcusable misogyny. Mitra's Molly is a survivor of several car accidents, one of which claimed her family when she was a kid. Her back looks like chopped beef; her scars run to the bone, literally. Harmon allows her vengeance, even if first he has to doll her up as victim; she won't be tied between two vehicles and torn in half, a particularly cruel and unnecessary passage from The Hitcher that suggested Harmon was less a thrill-seeker than sadist with an expensive camera.

But that doesn't mean Harmon has grown up any; he's still a little boy who likes to smash things, be they cars or people who get in their way. We see, over and over and over, the initial murder that drives Caviezel's Rennie to the point of spending his life cruising the highways searching for Fargo. Rennie's wife, a woman in red, walks across a country road to visit a fruit vendor; Fargo flattens her and keeps on driving. Rennie, watching from a motel balcony, runs to his wife's rescue but is too late; he climbs into his car and plows into Fargo's, sending one man to prison and another to a hospital. By the time the film ends, we are at that same motel with the same players, more or less, re-enacting the same gruesome incident. (The Hitcher was likewise bookended by scenes that echoed each other; Harmon must also like to drive in circles.)

Highwaymen, at a mere 78 minutes, has no interest in fleshing out its story; it's all bone and no meat, save for what ends up on the asphalt. It's populated by blank characters (Caviezel always looks as if he's just woken up from a nap or had a good cry) and might have been made by James Spader's character in Crash; he, too, loved nothing more than gore smeared over shattered glass and crumpled metal, and he would appreciate the scene in which Rennie puts the reluctant Molly's hand on his gearshift. But that gives the movie too much credit; it's too silly to be shocking, too daft to be daring. "You've been on the highway a long time," says an accident investigator to Rennie, "and that can change a man." If you seen Harmon's movies, you know the answer to that is, Not really.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky