The first few minutes of writer and director Logan Marshall-Green’s Adopt a Highway spends its time following blustery-eyed convict Russell (Ethan Hawke) during the final hours before being released after a 21 year stint from a California prison.
Compared to the usual sequence where most films deposit their parolee outside the gates and allow the euphoria of freedom to be the guiding sentiment, Marshall-Green documents the utter confusion and numbing bureaucracy that unfolds as Hawke just tries to make sense of his new surroundings. At one point, the prison guard tells him to start walking faster, implying that maybe he doesn’t want to “get out or something.” For a man who’s been institutionalized and probably told where and when to walk for more than two-thirds of his adult life, it’s easy to see why he’d lag behind.
The confusion doesn’t end there, however, and it’s a testament to Hawke’s vivid characterization that Adopt a Highway grabs hold of you and creates a striking portrait of a man adrift in a world he no longer understands. Barely speaking more than a handful of words for the first half of the film and making even less eye contact with anyone he meets (especially his various run-ins with police officers and his parole officer) the film leans towards low-key thriller aspects. Just when and how will this three-strike parolee mess up?
This is the simmering tension that hovers over the first half of the film, even as it breaks into a scraggly comedy of sorts when Russell tries to acclimate back into society. His erasure from the world is never more evident than when he walks into an internet cafe and explains that he needs an email for the necessary parolee paperwork. After a bit of mumbling explanation, the cafe employee’s reaction is to want a selfie with a man who owns no cell phone and doesn’t hold the first clue as to how the internet works.
The amusing tone is soon squelched when this new-found technology delivers the message to Russell of his father’s death years ago. Struggling to keep it together, Adopt a Highway then dials up the temperature as it continues to throw hard-scrabbled energies of the world at Russell, none more so fantastic than something he finds hidden in a dumpster behind his work place. It’s this out-of-left-straw plot device that serves as the one that breaks the camel’s back and sets Russell literally running from his dead-end prospects of a three-strike criminal.
As Russell sets out on a long journey towards something redemptive, however, the film loses steam. In its aimlessness, which often frees up and livens films when they break the shackles of confinement and hit the open road in search of something elusive, Adopt a Highway struggles. Even the fleeting relationship he develops with a fellow female bus traveler (Elaine Hendrix), who’s seemingly running towards or away from the similar pangs in life, the film feels strained.
But perhaps the biggest struggle of all lies in the film’s finale. Following forced logic involving a plot strand that, finally, changed Russell’s life, it’s a development that strives for serendipitous emotional release but ends up as confused magic realism instead. Logan-Marshall establishes his disdain for a law that sent a young man away for so long for something that’s now served over the counter in California easier than lobster rolls in the opening credits, so it’s easy to see why he’d want to end on a happier note for his sacrificial lamb, but the karma feels overcooked.
As frustrating as the script is, what ultimately makes Adopt a Highway still enjoyable is the immersive performance of Ethan Hawke. He creates a believable and empathetic figure out of a film that seems determined to sideswipe him with unbelievability at every turn.
The film opens in limited theatrical release, VOD and digital HD on Friday, November 1.