The modern world's intricate trade infrastructure stands as the reason why we can enjoy limited shipping times, non-indigenous delicacies, and an overall abundance of goods that improve our quality of living, but in an industry so vast, there has to be an underbelly that assigns value to individual beings. Paradise Highway tackles human trafficking with a thriller's edge, and the results are mixed.
Convoy: The visceral thrills of Paradise Highway come not solely through the dark subject matter but the ways in which the film takes advantage of its genre style to portray a warped and romanticized portrait of a specific life experience. The rumble of the big rigs' engines is satisfyingly heard in the sound design. There is something evocative about crossing the USA in one of these machines. Juliette Binoche's truck becomes a rolling backdrop for the workings of the plot, and the experience feels lived in. The cinematography takes advantage of the iconography of this world, frequently setting highway scenes when the sun is bold and beautiful, or sticking to a naturalistic way of lighting so that the colors feel Earthen and tinged with the golden hues of the color grading. The aesthetic of this film is well done, and it strengthens the overall tone of the story.
Old And New: In pursuing this central role, Juliette Binoche proves her ability and surprises with the amount of depth she brings to her character. Paradise Highway is still very much a thriller first, a character drama second, so it's not like she is spending the majority of this film examining her past. Still, she puts enough into her performance to make it the most authentic feeling of the film's elements. On the other side, however, Morgan Freeman's retired detective represents an uninspired series of perfunctory scenes whose existence may be necessary. Still, they don't add any pressure to the overall narrative. His character feels like the latest in a string of low-effort roles given to him because of his undeniable status as a legendary Hollywood actor, not necessarily because they're good parts. It feels similar to how Bruce Willis's career trajectory went up until his sudden retirement: attention-grabbing features in otherwise straight-to-DVD/streaming action thrillers alongside established character actors like, ironically, Frank Grillo, who himself doesn't have as much to do as you might want. This is Binoche's film —she makes it better, in spite of the aforementioned police scenes that kill the film's pace.
Paradise Highway is at its best when dealing with the raw inhumanity of its subject matter. It goes far without becoming exploitative, but the dramatics aren't always sustainable during its two-hour run time. The purest enjoyment comes from Juliette Binoche's ability to shed her image as a French movie star and slide effortlessly into the film's sensationalized embrace of the working person.