By Marc S. Sanders
The southwest region of the United States can be brutal. The desert landscape is scorchingly hot and the end of the world seems like an eternity away…no matter how fast you drive or how far you go. Worse yet could be the truckers and locals who could care less about who you are, where you came from or where you’re going. So, you better be sure your well equipped Jeep Cherokee has enough gas in the tank and your oil dipstick comes up black. For Jeff and Amy Taylor, though, nothing they do will matter. Their car is destined to break down anyway.
Jonathan Mostow wrote and directed a taut thriller called Breakdown that builds on a Hitchcockian formula for a road picture. When Jeff and Amy’s (Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan) car breaks down on a long, lonesome highway in the middle of the desert, a friendly trucker stops by (JT Walsh) to lend a hand. He offers to take them to the next stop where they can call a tow truck. Jeff agrees to stay with the car. Amy hitches a ride to call for the tow. Shortly after, Jeff realizes that Amy has mysteriously disappeared. When Jeff catches up with the trucker, the situation gets even stranger because this guy claims to have never met Jeff before or even know who his wife is. It gets even weirder and more frightening from there.
Kurt Russell is very good in a relatively simple, but effective story that only needs its ninety minutes to get your heart racing. As Jeff learns of the conspiracy playing against him, the panic builds in Russell’s performance. A really effective moment occurs when Jeff is forced to go to a local bank and withdraw ransom money. While the banker is executing the money transaction, Jeff enters the restroom. In this short moment, Mostow keeps a good close up on a very sweaty, beaten and nervous Kurt Russell. Jeff is looking for something to use as a weapon. Now, we’ve seen this many times before. What kept me absorbed in the suspense of the film is how Kurt Russell evokes his thought process without having anyone to talk to. In this bathroom, he involuntarily walks in circles, seemingly asking himself “what am I going to do?”. Mostow never breaks the shot, allowing his lead’s performance to send home the paranoia. I was right there with this poor guy. What is Jeff going to do?
JT Walsh was an under the radar character actor; one of those guys that you recognize from dozens of films (Good Morning, Vietnam, A Few Good Men), but you just never knew his name. He passed away too soon. I’d wager eventually he’d get some kind of awards recognition. This is a magnificent villain in Breakdown. A good antagonist is one you can trust at first. So that when the veil is lifted, your jaw drops a little. Walsh accomplishes that here. He turns on the good guy and he betrays the viewer. He really plays a guy with two masks on. Friendly and helpful at first. Later, a toothless scowl is across his face as he terrorizes Jeff. The big rig truck that Walsh drives becomes reminiscent of what Steven Spielberg accomplished with his first film, Duel.
While a Jeff Taylor character may have appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film, as the common man caught up in an outrageous plot he was never looking for, Jonathan Mostow has modernized the method with well edited action scenes. This is a road picture but there really are not car chases to behold. Instead, there are moments where like any of us, we will increase our speed on long stretches of road. When we take our eyes off the highway for a split second, we never expect what will pop out and startle us. As well, when we try to pass ahead by cutting into the opposite lane, a head on collision may come our way. The film goes for those pressure points first before another overly used car chase. This is where the environment fights back against the protagonist.
The location shoots of Breakdown are superb. An old diner, in the middle of nowhere, has some locals who could care less about a polite out of towner, clearly concerned about his missing wife. They just look straight ahead while nursing their beers. The bartender has also had enough of this guy to the point of threatening him with a gun to get out of the joint. A passing by police officer (Rex Linn of Better Call Saul, another great character actor) devotes no more than five minutes of his time to poor Jeff’s concern, and then he moves on. The desert and the people who occupy the area serve only apathy to a helpless stranger. The setting of Breakdown is a villain all its own.
This thriller works simply because a scenario like this could happen to any of us. It was released in 1997, just ahead of the cell phone age, and there’s acknowledgement of that time. Jump to today and this situation could still happen. Technology is not always going to help us, no matter how many bells and whistles we have on a car or how many bars show on our handheld devices. In the desert, any one of us can be a victim unto ourselves. In the middle of nowhere, a bad guy can use an opportunity to his advantage at the expense of any persons leaving themselves unguarded.
Breakdown shows that our worst nightmare could be to drive into an endless daylight void, where any one of us can get stuck, only to later get caught. It’s scary as a desert hell, and it’s a fantastic nail biter right until its bang-up conclusion.