|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 26 March 2002|
"Highway” begins in a rather subdued manner, but one that makes the ears of any confirmed audio enthusiast prick up. A trained lover of all things audio will probably pick out the sound of a marble racing around a roulette wheel during the blank screen in Chapter 1 even before the movie opens up in Las Vegas. The marble makes a distinct noise that shifts through the center and main speakers, but a roulette marble dropping into the slot is a lot like a bad penny that keeps turning up.
The movie picks up the pace with Pilot, one of the two main characters, running a racket stealing cars by posing as a valet in front of a casino. When he drives off, the tires shrill across the hot pavement and roll through the surround sound. As the theft progresses and the opening credits roll, the viewer is treated to a montage of scenes of the past that introduces the two main characters as young boys. This mix of past and present continues through the first half of the movie and carries a lot of weight by showing the patterns of friendship between Pilot and Jack. As the montage plays, the front speakers carry guitar riffs of familiar ‘90s songs that marked the grunge era.
The next two chapters in the movie are standard plot and character advancement with some emphasis on the music of the ‘90s. Pilot is a drug dealer and car thief. Jack is a pool boy who is considered by many to be a sex god. Jack has a way of being able to get any woman he wants, but never gets close to any of them. None of them mean anything.
The first woman to really mean something to Jack (but definitely not in a good way) is the wife of mobster Burt Miranda, whose pool he’s been cleaning. Burt comes home to find Jack in bed with his wife, who fancies herself something of a seductress. Jack is only with her as a gag, but when Burt pulls a gun, things get serious.
At home in the trailer lot where he lives, Jack talks with his younger brother, who already knows about the encounter with Jilly Miranda, and his father, who cautions him too late. Only minutes later, Jack sees “Miranda’s Pandas”, an enforcer crew employed by the Mafia boss, beat up his father while looking for him. This bit is nicely played on audio. There is absolute silence while Jack carries on conversations with his father and brother, emphasizing the fact that they really don’t have much between them. Then, when the violence erupts outside, the conversation is filtered through the mains instead of the center speaker, giving the viewer the impression of distant events.
Knowing the Pandas are hot on his trail, Jack grabs what stuff he can and flees for with Pilot. The car wreck during the chase scene in Chapter 4 wakes up the subwoofer in a big way.
Chapter 5 shows an act of inspired insanity on Jeremy Piven’s part. Piven plays Scawldy, Pilot’s drug employer, and goes into a lunatic spiel that is a hoot.
Chapter 6 finds the pair in the Dan D Fine whorehouse. While there to get Pilot to sow his oats, the pair hears an odd story of a hooker who quit and stole all the other women’s shoes before she left, which explains why all the working girls show up barefooted though in costume. Again, the background music sets the tone and the mood, echoing through the main speakers.
During the next couple of chapters, Jack and Pilot talk and the viewer gets a better understanding of their friendship. Meanwhile, the Pandas have tracked Jack and Pilot to Scawldy’s and give him a hard time. Glass breaks in the main speakers as they rough Scawldy up, and the VHS tape playing on the TV comes from the mains, again delivering the tonal quality of distance.
The subwoofer gets aired out again in Chapter 9 when Jack, Pilot, and young hitchhiker Cassie arrive at a biker bar. Conversations in the bar echo through the system while the dialogue between Jack, Pilot, and Cassie comes through the center and mains, making the viewer feel as though he or she were sitting at a nearby table. Later, the rave Pilot attends to unload some of his drug supply for cash roars through the entire system, including the subwoofer. When they have to make a hasty exit from the rave with newfound friend Johnny the Fox in tow, the Monte Carlo’s wheels race through the speakers.
Chapter 10 mixes road noises and guitar sounds as the viewer is treated to Pilot’s real story of why he wants to go to Seattle. The guitar riffs echoing through the front speakers while he does this underscores the emotion and draws the viewer in. Chapter 11 roars with the sound of a saw cutting through the top of the Monte Carlo as Jack takes Cassie’s advice that the only way to properly road trip is with the top off. The excellent road noises continue with the 18-wheelers that pass on the interstate.
As the storyline takes on a deeper, darker text, the auditory subtext changes as well. To reflect the deepening emotional complexity of the story between the characters, bird noises echo in the background through the front speakers in Chapter 12. The sound of the crying girl when Jack and Pilot go to see the Alligator Boy also issues through the front speakers, emphasizing a sense of distance. The bubbles in the pond where the Alligator Boy lives burst softly, coming from the center and mains. As a side note in Chapter 12, the viewer picks up some information concerning Aesop of Aesop’s Fables fame.
Chapter 13 has loads of street scenes that roll through the speakers around the viewer that pull the viewer into the car with the characters. In the bar scene in Chapter 14, the music again pours through the speakers, creating the illusion that the viewer is seated within the scene. The microphone squelch issues from the center speaker and into the mains until it disappears. While filling the gas tank near an airfield, the subwoofer heats up again to deliver the thundering jet engine sounds.
In Chapter 15, violence breaks out. The subwoofer punches all the physical contact home to the viewer, delivering a steady one-two of its own. Later, when the local toughs bully Desmond the Alligator Boy, his roars fill the speakers.
The sound of the toilet flushing in Chapter 16 rolls through the mains, setting up what is about to happen to the friendship. When Pilot and Jack have a falling out, Pilot joins a group in a van. The subwoofer and speakers pick up on the road traveling music.
Chapter 17 has a very effective piece of audio content as Jack tries to find a radio station in the car while he’s agitated. The station changing shifts through the speakers with enough annoying consistency that some viewers might well feel like reaching up to slap Jack’s hand away. In Seattle, Pilot goes looking for his lost love at the vigil for Kurt Cobain, who had just committed suicide in the movie.
At the Cobain memorial, the music heats up, driving riffs through the speakers. Later, at an amusement park, the noise made by rides, guns, and park-goers puts the viewer smack in the middle of the action. Everything comes to a head in Seattle at the Cobain rite.
As a DVD, the craftsmanship shown in “Highway” is way above average. However, the content might make the movie more suitable as a rental. “Highway” is well worth the watch, and the friendship between Jack and Pilot is deep and real, showing the kind of candor young people had during the grunge phase. But once the viewer has seen all the tricks and turns the story takes, there’s little replay value unless the viewer is a big fan of grunge music and wants to relive that era.