SXSW: ‘Adopt a Highway’ Is A Small & Stunning Portrait Of A Man Left Behind

Adopt a Highway
Image Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions

Movies exist in a vacuum. Though when there made can influence a trend or styling prevalent in that period, they exist on a plane where time doesn’t exist. This makes the prospect of filmmakers setting out to recapture and aesthetic an almost insurmountable task. And yet here’s Logan Marshall-Green, in his directorial debut, making it look easy with Adopt a Highway. A film that feels as if it exists as a cross between The Florida Project and works of the “New Hollywood”revolution. It’s an inherently intimate and specific film. One that finds beauty and frustration in smaller moments. A slice of life piece, through the lens of an existence barely being lived.

Russell (Ethan Hawke) is a casualty of the system. While in high school he got arrested for a minor offense. Since it was his third strike, he was sentenced to a 25 year prison sentence. He’s able to be released after serving 20 years, into a world he barely recognizes. He doesn’t know how to use the internet he doesn’t own a phone. Being an ex-felon affords him little to no opportunities. So, he gets a job as a night dishwasher at a fast food chain. Often working double shifts, before retreating to the hotel he lives in like a hermit. Until one night when taking out the trash, he hears a soft cry, emanating from a dumpster.

If Swiss Army Man is affectionately referred to as the “Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse movie”, then Adopt a Highway will go down as the “Ethan Hawke Dumpster Baby film”. Doing so is to limit the film’s intent and effectiveness. While it operates on a very small and bare bones approach, that’s ultimately what helps it soar. That element of the film is only a small section of the story being told. Even though it feels at times like a series of vignettes. It overall follows the feeling and vibe of a film from the mid 70s, when those left of center films made their mark.

The film exists as a showcase for Ethan Hawke. Not in a how way, mind you, as Russell exists barely above a whisper. This isn’t necessarily reserved, as saying that dismisses the incredible work here. Though his past and prison time are largely unexplored, it isn’t key to understanding the man. Pissed on and brushed off by society, Russell is emotionally stunted in a way that feels crushing. He’s scared of his own shadow and will do anything not to end up back in prison. Yet his innate sense to help others out is what theaters to send him down an unfortunate path.

Watching Hawke try to give Russell the words to explain things, only to hold back, is masterful. It’s cringe-worthy without ever doing so out of manipulation or comedic effect. If he isn’t up for awards consideration at the end of the year, till be a shame. He’s that good here. It’s entirely different from First Reformed, yet obviously took the same amount of skill and time to pull off.

Marshall-Green has Hawke on-screen for the entire of the film. Never pulling from his focus. He makes the audience invested in Russell’s journey, as tiny as it may seem in a grand and giant world. The fact that he’s able to make things seem so effortless, is the sign of a director who will continually to flex and expand his muscles over the next several years. There’s a confidence in here that’s assured beyond the level that should be expected. That’s a terrifying and wonderful thought.

Adopt a Highway is a quiet film. Taking in the silent reflection of a man shirked by circumstance and left to fend for himself. As small and limiting as the view feels at times, may lead plenty of people to not give it a chance. That would be a shame because Logan Marshall-Green and Ethan Hawke together have crafted a beautiful little film, worthy of being sought out.

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