Paradise Highway, new to Blu-ray from Lionsgate, may not have received a wide theatrical release but that’s no reason to overlook it. Highway is a dramatic thriller that’s well acted, suspenseful, and tightly paced. Written and directed by Anna Gutto, Highway delves into a disturbing topic: child trafficking. Sally (Academy Award-winner Juliette Binoche) is a rough-and-tumble big rig driver, all but inseparable from her truck. Her brother Dennis (Frank Grillo, of two Purge movies, Anarchy and Election Year) is her ne’er-do-well brother. Dennis is getting out of jail shortly. Sally’s hands aren’t clean—she runs contraband for her brother via her truck. Notably, Morgan Freeman plays a supporting role here, that of FBI agent Gerick.
Dennis requires one final deliver to be made in order to secure financial security for he and Sally. Why are these two nearing-retirement age siblings so linked? Dennis tells Sally that it will be just the two of them in the future, “the way it should be.” The nature of their relationship is never made entirely clear. I’m not making it weird—writer-director Gutto does that. Sally and Dennis behave far more like a long-separated couple as opposed to brother/sister. Thankfully, that’s not the focus of the Highway and Grillo’s limited screentime makes that oddness easy to ignore. Rather than drugs, the cargo for this final delivery turns out to be a preteen girl named Leila (Hala Finley). Initially resistant, Sally grits her teeth and attempts to deliver Leila to her “buyer,” some skeevy older man who they meet in a forested area late at night.
Mild spoilers ahead, but first—what works and what doesn’t about Paradise Highway? Binoche disappears into her role as Sally. Completely and utterly de-glammed, she is entirely convincing as the forever put-upon Sally. She portrays Sally as a somewhat ambivalent bottom-feeder. As effective as Binoche is, Hala Finley steals the show in a breakout performance. Her vulnerable, smart, skeptical, and ultimately endearing Leila is a full-blooded characterization. Finley, just getting started in her acting career, is someone to watch. The full range of her emotional spectrum ring entirely true. Now onto a few mild spoilers.
In an act of desperate self-preservation, Leila shoots and kills her “purchaser,” leaving Sally with a big mess on her hands. She didn’t particularly want this job in the first place, but fierce (again, almost creepy) devotion to her brother compelled her to. Now she finds herself on the lamb with a young abductee while in pursuit by Agents Gerick and his partner Sterling (Cameron Monaghan). The plot trades on a number of contrivances, which I’m not going to get into. Suffice it to say that plot mechanics get a bit heavy-handed as things develop. But the strengths of the film outweigh the weaknesses, especially considering this is a “small” film that didn’t get much of a promotional boost.
Morgan is his usual, reliable self, delivering gravitas but no surprises in a role he honestly could sleepwalk through at this point in his career. Grillo is a bit of a stock character here, with most of his dialogue coming via clunky telephone-call voiceovers. It’s the team of Juliette Binoche and Hala Finley that makes Paradise Highway well worth the time.
Lionsgates Blu-ray includes a Digital HD download, director’s commentary, a handful of deleted scenes (with optional writer-director’s commentary), and a 20-minute ‘making of’ featurette. Overall, plenty of value for fans of the film who want to dive deeper.