Jonathan Mostow’s “Breakdown” (1997) stars Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan as Jeff and Amy Taylor, a road-tripping couple from Massachusetts who move to San Diego.
The opening credits set the tone aptly, as composer Basil Poledouris’s percussion score perfectly blends with the lines of a road map, taking us through dry, unforgiving desert landscapes and barren byways. The first scene shows Amy, while Jeff takes his eyes off the road for just a second and nearly crashes into a truck.
The tension begins at a gas station and never ends for the rest of the film.
A tense and seemingly random encounter with Earl (MC Gainey), a truck driver at a gas station, is the first thing that goes wrong for the Taylors. Then the Taylors’ Grand Jeep Cherokee breaks down on the side of the road, leading them to trust a complete stranger named “Red” (JT Walsh) and trust that everything will work out, as it often does with this couple. . .
The Taylors drive a nice and expensive vehicle, but they are unfamiliar with cars and accustomed to comfort. They are about to have the worst 24 hours of their lives.
Echoes of “Duel” (1971), “The Vanishing” (1988), “The Hitcher” (1986) and, much later, “Joy Ride” (2001) and “Red Lights” (2004) come to mind. . Mostow, who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Sam Montgomery, weeded out any lines or moments that might have seemed filler or unnecessary.
There’s just no filler here, as each scene serves a purpose.
The seemingly unnecessary and discarded detail of a $90,000.00 jackpot on the side of a donut wrapper becomes a key plot thread in the second act. Mostow tells us to look closely and adopt the desperate, wide-eyed perspective of Russell’s character.
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Russell is an ideal Everyman. He has kind eyes that convey vulnerability, but he’s tough enough to be believable when Jeff finds the will to fight back. Like the comparatively thin and thought-provoking “The Fugitive” (1993), it never leaves the perspective of its tortured protagonist, and for a brief period we question Jeff in the same way that we initially aren’t 100 percent sure about Dr. Richard Kimball. .
Here, Jeff doesn’t have the equivalent of a Lt. Sam Gerard to promise that justice will eventually prevail. Jeff is alone. The bank scene is an exercise in Hitchcockian visual paranoia – note the camera angles that appear to be judging Jeff.
It takes a long time before our hero gets the upper hand, and even then, he never has much of an advantage. Jeff faces the nastiest villains since the team that shot Officer Alex J. Murphy in “RoboCop” (1987).
One unsettling touch that stands out: Once Jeff enters the villain’s lair, such as it is, it doesn’t come out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) nor does it look like a war room or a serial killer’s lair. No, it’s simple, ordinary and homey.
The “bad guys” of “Breakdown” are especially unsettling because they’re recognizable, open, and unconcerned about what they do.
Walsh, the late magnificent character actor, is terrifying, cold, imposing and mysterious as Red; in other words, the perfect villain. Because Walsh isn’t playing talking killer, we support each other every time he utters a word.
Watch him closely during the third act scenes set in a barn, even without dialogue Walsh is conveying a lot. Walsh died at the age of 54 in 1998. “Breakdown” was one of his last big performances. As actors, he was one of the best. Also noteworthy is Gainey, perfectly terrifying and just as essential to drawing us in as Walsh.
Breakdown was one of the best movies produced by Martha and Dino DeLaurentis during this period. The surname tends to bring back memories of big-budget flops/cult classics like “King Kong” (1976), “Flash Gordon” (1980), and “Dune” (1984). However, this was a good era for them, as other worthy works included “Army of Darkness” and “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (both 1993).
“Breakdown” was released in the early summer of 1997 and emerged as a sleeper hit with legs that survived through huge word of mouth.
FAST FACT: “Breakdown” made $50 million at the US box office in 1997. The biggest hit of that year? “Men in Black” with $250 million.
The film was acclaimed in ’97, but today it feels like a masterpiece pressed down like a drum. I’ve only seen it a few times though, as it has always managed to put me in a state of total anxiety.
I’ll admit to something crazy: every time I watch this, it has to be from start to finish, as I can’t stand leaving it at the midpoint and not seeing Jeff’s journey through to the end, both because of how good the movie is and because I don’t I want to leave Russell.
Mostow’s film creates a sense of dread that is almost unbearable and unrelenting. Aside from the old-fashioned cell phone and the use of a phone book, nothing here feels old-fashioned.
An early scene where Jeff goes to Belle’s Diner and can’t find his wife concludes with a tow truck shot indicating the utter isolation Jeff feels. Everything that the 1994 US remake of “The Vanishing” did wrong, “Breakdown” does right.
Mostow’s film is as excellent in editing, sound design, cinematography and pacing as the performances.
There’s an excellent collection of character actors here, all ideally and wisely cast: Rex Linn as the Sheriff trying to be helpful, and Jack McGee as the friendly-until-pressed restaurant owner are especially vivid.
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The preparation of the first act catches us because nothing seems inevitable: we know that the villain is Walsh’s Red and we’ve seen him walk away with Jeff’s wife, but… Did Jeff mess up somehow?
Unlike “The Vanishing,” the villain isn’t established right away, and we’re stuck with Russell’s likeable but somewhat annoying leading man – we’re meeting him in the midst of a crisis and we can’t always trust his choices or the slight arrogance with which is presented to the locals.
Initially, we’re not sure if Amy’s disappearance is a big conspiracy (since we, like Jeff, start to distrust all the nice guy figures in the plot) or if only a couple of characters have committed a crime. For a movie with familiar plot elements (the comparison to “Duel” is especially well-deserved), audiences won’t get ahead of the story any more than Russell’s Jeff will outwit his opponents.
As bloodthirsty and crowd-pleasing as the final moment, the film earns it. There is one final detail that bothers me about the last scene: is it really over for the antagonist and will the police believe his version of the story?
After all, considering where Mostow’s narrative ends, doesn’t the evidence in plain view present more questions than answers? It seems that “Breakdown”, even once it’s over, never loosens its agonizing grip on us.