A feature film receiving its world premiere in the Narrative Spotlight section at SXSW, Adopt a Highway, is receiving a lot of buzz. Directed and written by Logan Marshall-Green in a first-time effort (he has acted on stage and in films), it stars the inestimable Ethan Hawke who currently is delivering a blockbuster performance as one of the brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West at the Roundabout Theatre in New York City. Hawke flew out from NYC to attend the second screening and the Q&A for the film.
After the world premiere screening and the Q&A, Marshall-Green told us he wrote the piece for Hawke because because he understood the actor’s prodigious ability needed to portray Russell Millings, an ex-con who suffered a 20-year-sentence for a minor offense because of California’s harsh, inequitable “three strikes” policy.
When Millings is vomited out of the prison because of the end of the “three strikes” policy, he is spinning and bereft, with little idea how to recreate a life for himself, grapple with “sins” and regrets from his past, and negotiate society. A letter he has saved serves as a clue to the potential for a new life, which Marshall-Green wisely reveals by the conclusion of the film. At that point we receive encouragement and a satisfying uplift. Indeed, the conclusion is a consummation of hope that recalls the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son.
After he’s released, Millings stays in the area to ground himself in a job, a condition of his parole. But he seems isolated and withdrawn. We assume he does not intend to violate his parole, get into trouble or “disturb” the peace in any way. It is as if he is walking on egg shells, as if the very molecules of the atmosphere anticipate he might do something to create a windstorm that will blow him back to jail.
Marshall-Green’s portrait of this hapless individual who is a casualty of politics is heartbreaking. And indeed, somewhere in the subtleties of this film lies the question: Aren’t there better rehabilitation programs for violators of the law?
Millings like many others was caught in the marijuana trap of years ago. Now, of course, as the film briefly acknowledges, marijuana has been legalized for recreational purposes in some states. Thus, Millings is left to reconcile the misery and torment of his years behind bars, suffering the inequitable justice and penal system that victimized him and shaped his personality, with the new reality. Indeed, he has spent over half of his life in prison. Released, he must struggle on his own. There doesn’t seem to be much to re-introduce him into the culture except contacts with his parole officer.
Marshall-Green’s stark plot development and poignant characterization are revealed in the film’s silences, in the music, in the absence of a strikingly visual color palette, in Millings’ bare-bones lifestyle. They are revealed in Hawke’s quiet and internal portrayal, as if he bears the scars of his miseries in his gait, his demeanor, his overall sweetness and halted speech. As a result of Marshall-Green’s directorial choices and Hawke’s brilliance, we completely empathize with Millings and want him to succeed, knowing he is a hair’s-breadth away from doing something that will put him back in jail on a parole violation.
The possibilities for this are increased exponentially when at his job washing dishes at a burger joint, he goes to the trash bins to throw out the garbage and finds a wayward mother has thrown her beautiful baby into the dumpster. Here is a chance for Millings’ redemption – if he makes the right decision, to call the police or a government agency. Surely, they will shelter the baby girl who wears a fancy pink dress that perhaps symbolizes her mother’s hopes and dreams; though leaving her in a dumpster also reveals the mother’s turmoil and self-damnation.
The nighttime scene when he finds the baby is revealed with a combination of shots so we register Millings’ shock and horror at the baby’s abandonment and symbolic identification. We see the refuse where the baby has been placed in a gym bag which has become her new home. The child’s dire situation creates incredible tension for Millings and thus, for us.
The tension grows when Millings decides to take the baby and care for it. After he takes the child to the place where he is staying, a series of wonderful, humorous and human scenes ensue as women give him tips for treating the baby’s colic and much more. The baby provides a way for Millings to connect with his own humanity and is the turning point for his redemption and return to self-love and self-forgiveness.
Ethan Hawke turns in an outstanding performance, with excellent supporting work from the cast (Betty Gabriel, Elaine Hendrix, etc.) playing characters Millings meets along the highway of his second chance. Look for themes of lost innocence regained, redemption, and second chances on the highway of life in this gem of a film.