Paradise Highway opens with a truck driver Sally (Juliette Binoche, Ghost in the Shell, Godzilla) groping off some illicit cargo before heading back out on the road. She does this as a payoff to the mob for keeping her jailed brother Dennis (Frank Grillo, A Day to Die, Jiu Jitsu) safe from beatings. Thankfully he’s only a few days away from release and there’s just one more job left for her to run for them.
To her horror, it turns out to be taking a young girl Leila (Hala Finley, Backroads, Man with a Plan) to her buyer. Refuse and she and her brother will be killed. However, the one doing the killing is Leila who manages to unload a shotgun into her would-be owner. This leaves the two of them with not just the mob but FBI Agent Sterling (Cameron Monaghan, Shattered, Amityville: The Awakening) and agent turned consultant Gerick (Morgan Freeman, Seven, London Has Fallen).
Anna Gutto, making her feature-length debut as a writer and director, takes the common theme of the tough woman and a child in danger seen in everything from John Cassavetes’ Gloria to the more recent Special Delivery and then ups the stakes by making the danger being trafficked and sets it in a big rig. But if you’re expecting a cross between The Transporter and Duel you’ll be disappointed.
Sally is an old, worn-down truck driver and, in a refreshing change of pace, she doesn’t suddenly acquire the strength and stamina of an eighteen-year-old athlete. She has to evade her pursuers using her brains, luck, and a bit of help from her CB radio buddies. What isn’t such a change is the relationship between Sally and her passenger as it follows a predictable path from hostility to wariness and then trust. Gutto wisely cuts much of the first stage out by having the attempted drop-off and ensuing shooting happen early before the strained silence and nasty looks can get tedious.
The casting of Grillo as Sally’s brother is an odd choice. As expected he’s not on screen much, just a voice on the phone for most of it actually and he and Binoche look and sound so little like siblings the script needed to add in a less than convincing explanation for their differences. And, who’s really going to believe Grillo is the guy who needs protecting, and not the guy the others need protection from?
Unfortunately, as a thriller Paradise Highway goes on for way too long at an hour and fifty-five minutes. And all too frequently it goes too long without thrills to really be effective. Rather than focus on the pursuit of Sally and Leila by the traffickers and keep the tension up, the script keeps cutting away to the feds as they stumble along two steps behind everyone else. A scene where they uncover the trafficker’s abandoned safe house is disturbing, but not to the degree it should have been.
Gutto really needed to go a heavy edit on Paradise Highway’s first ninety minutes and cut it down to seventy-five or even sixty minutes. There’s plenty of unneeded dialogue that could be trimmed and as good a job as cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund (The Quake, The Wave) of capturing the feel of a long-distance road trip, there are way too many shots of the truck driving along the highway. It needed to get to the point sooner and keep the pace fast enough to make sure the viewer doesn’t lose interest.
Paradise Highway’s final act, while relying on one hell of a coincidence, does deliver a short chase and a few thrills but it’s a bit late for them to do much good. The same is true of Grillo’s reappearance and the attempt at a twist. It could have worked, but it needed to happen while the audience still cared.
Paradise Highway is available on VOD and Digital platforms from Lionsgate. It will be available on Blu-rat and DVD on September 6th. And if that’s not quite what you were looking for, FilmTagger has a few suggestions.