Review: Paradise Highway Features a Strong Cast But a Loose Grip on the Horrors of Human Trafficking

In a week filled with oddities at the movie theater, few are stranger in my mind than the feature debut from writer/director Anna Gutto, Paradise Highway, which features two Academy Award winners in a story about the intersection of human trafficking and long-haul trucking. Juliette Binoche plays Sally, a truck driver who puts in long hours, mostly up and down the east coast. Her brother Dennis (Frank Grillo) is in prison, about to be released, and she is eagerly awaiting his return. But in order to keep him alive until his release, she has been running various contraband in her truck on behalf of people in prison with Dennis who say they will kill him if she doesn’t. It’s an ugly situation, but she’s very protective of her brother, so she does it.

Just days before Dennis is sprung, Sally gets one more illicit shipping run, but this time the cargo is a young girl, perhaps not yet a teenager, named Leila (Hala Finley), and although Sally is dead set against the idea of transporting a young girl under any circumstance, she agrees to take her, thinking perhaps she can look out for her in the process. When she’s about to deliver Leila to a man that will take her to her final destination, Leila gets hold of Sally’s gun and kills him, forcing the two to run from both the traffickers and the FBI. Morgan Freeman plays a retired agent who specialized in trafficking cases and still comes in as a consultant from time to time; he’s partnered with relative newbie, Finley Sterling (Cameron Monaghan), who tends to operate by the book but is eager to learn from the best, having little field work experience himself.

Seeing as though it’s a bit difficult to hide a big rig on the open road, Sally moves from truck stop to truck stop and hiding place to hiding place—locations she picked up over her many years as one of very few female truck drivers. She’s seen the worst of humanity in her travels, so she is particularly eager to keep Leila safe, even if the girl doesn’t trust or listen to her. Binoche seems overqualified for this role, but that results in her really inhabiting the character, revealing small things about Sally’s history that are not explicitly discussed in the screenplay. Dennis is in jail for doing something to protect her, which is why she’s so eager to see him out of prison unharmed. The escaped girl is causing problems for him, but since it’s Frank Grillo playing the role, we get a sense he’s not being completely straight with his desperate sister.

There are a few nice touches in Paradise Highway, including the CB radio conversations among the road’s few female drivers, who form a tight sisterly bond and come to each other’s rescue when needed. I also like the way filmmaker Gutto takes the time to examine each truck stop and the seedy world outside of the real one that exists for truckers, which goes beyond just driving and sleeping. But too much of the film feels like it’s taking the long way around this fairly simple story. There are ways Sally could have ended this chase much sooner, but her misguided idea of protection ends up putting both of them in danger far more often than necessary. I also liked the partnership of Freeman and Monaghan, with each of their unique investigative styles getting results, depending on the situation. Freeman’s folksy approach seems to appeal to truckers, but Monaghan’s professionalism works best with other law enforcement types.

I’ve certainly never seen a movie quite like Paradise Highway, but in the end, I’m not quite sure why it exists except to give Binoche that rare opportunity to work in an American production. She’s a gift to acting (also catch her currently in Both Sides of the Blade, a much better movie), so any chance to see her work is worth it. While there’s nothing explicitly tawdry about this work, it still doesn’t feel quite honest about the horrors of human trafficking. I’m not sure I want to see that movie either, but the truth is always preferred. Binoche fiends, keep an eye out for this one; the rest of you can probably skip it.

The film is now in theaters, and available digitally and on VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.