The strange casting of Juliette Binoche as an American truck driver is the jump-off point of the new film “Paradise Highway,” a thriller that is done in by underwhelming writing.
First-time feature filmmaker Anna Gutto (she also wrote the screenplay) creates some interesting and potentially tense situations but the actions of her characters prevent her from being able to bring it all home.
Binoche stars as Sally, a truck driver who, to save her incarcerated brother’s (an underused Frank Grillo) life from a dangerous prison gang, must smuggle a mysterious cargo in her rig.
The cargo is a young girl named Leila (Hala Finley) who is to be delivered to sex traffickers. As with any person with a soul, this goes against everything Sally believes in, but she must keep her brother alive in his last few weeks in prison.
When Sally gets to the meeting place and reluctantly prepares to hand Leila over to her captors, the trouble begins. The young girl finds Sally’s shotgun and kills the kidnapper. The two hit the road and go on the run, pursued by both the vengeful traffickers and the F.B.I. agents played by Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan. Ah yes, the over-used young cop being schooled by the older jaded “sensei”.
What drew Binoche and Freeman to this project? Both are respected actors but their characters don’t give them much of a challenge beyond Binoche stretching as a truck driver in the American South.
Freeman has done this role to death and is sleepwalking here. His scenes with his young partner are dull, all-too familiar. Frankly, the two agents don’t do much to keep the story moving forward.
Binoche hasn’t lost her French accent and, while doing good work of the role, is unconvincing.
The film finds some reality in the scenes between Sally and young Leila. Finley gives a good performance and while her moments with Binoche aren’t fleshed out to their fullest potential, the young actress brings a gravity to the role. The director achieves an innocent sweetness to some their scenes and her film would have benefited from more of these moments.
John Christian’s cinematography is a missed opportunity, his camera fails to take advantage of the Tennessee and Mississippi countryside or capture the essence of the truck stop ambiance of life on the road.
The biggest letdown is the film’s avoidance in exploring the world of female truck drivers. In the opening, director Gutto hints at a look into that world, as Sally has a quick banter with other female drivers, but this is all done as quick character set up and nothing more. To pepper this picture with a Greek chorus of female voices traveling the highways would have given the film some color; a “Citizen’s Band” (Jonathan Demme’s 1977 truck-driving film) with a thriller edge. But Gutto doesn’t expand her narrative.
Taking on the important subject matter of sex trafficking, the filmmaker misses out on delivering enough dramatic edge to carry it through its full running time. There are too many scenes that play as mere filling until the next reveal and a couple of moments between the two F.B.I. agents that make us wonder how they ever became law enforcement.
The screenplay’s biggest crime is the “Thelma and Louise” blunder. Louise shoots and kills a man who was raping Thelma. Instead of waiting for the authorities, the two go on the run. There is no way Louise would have gone to jail for killing a man who was violently raping her friend. The same goes for Gutto’s film. A child kills a man who was sent to kidnap her for sex traffickers. The police would not have arrested anyone. In both instances, to go on the run appears superfluous.
Once the film comes to its predictable finale “Paradise Highway” is all missed opportunities and wasted talent.
As the credits begin, the statement “each survivor of trafficking has a unique story. This film is dedicated to them and the brave people who step in to help” burns onto the screen while a misguided Pop song-styled remake of Blondie’s “One Way or Another” plays. This is both a reminder of what the film should have been and an exploitation of a weighty subject matter.