Screenplay : Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Kurt Russell (Jeff Taylor), J.T. Walsh (Red Barr), Kathleen Quinlan (Amy Taylor), M.C. Gainey (Earl), Jack Noseworthy (Billy), Rex Linn (Sheriff Boyd), Ritch Brinkley (Al), Moira Harris (Arleen)
Some movies have such good set-ups, that they are virtually assured to be something of a let-down when it comes time for the follow-through. Jonathan Mostow's "Breakdown" is such a movie.
The opening is very reminiscent of the superior Dutch thriller "The Vanishing" (later remade by the same director into a thoroughly disappointing American film), where a husband and wife are on a trip, and the wife literally disappears into thin air. In "The Vanishing" we know is responsible from the start, we just don't know what happened; in "Breakdown" it is much the same, although we can't be positive exactly who is in on the game.
The bewildered husband, Jeff Taylor is played by Kurt Russell in a constant state of anxiety and frustration. When he and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), break down in the middle of the New Mexico desert, she accepts a ride with a friendly trucker named Red Barr (J.T. Walsh), who says he will take her five miles down the road to a roadside diner so she can call a tow truck. They should have known something was up right away -- no one in modern America is as nice and polite as Red.
After waiting several hours, Jeff manages to get the car started himself, drives down to the diner, only to discover that -- surprise! -- his wife never arrived. On sheer luck, he sees Red driving by and manages to flag him down, only to have Red tell him with a completely straight face that he has never seen him before in his life. A police officer conveniently driving by searches the truck, but finds no signs of Amy.
This first third of the movie is sharply written and directed, creating a real gnaw in the gut and desire to learn what's happening. It's so well-done, in fact, that it begins to take on an almost supernatural overtone. Unfortunately, when the set-up is this good, almost no explanation can possibly suffice. "The Vanishing" set itself up in a similar situation, but answered with a cold, calculating resolution that was so shocking in and of itself that it made you forget the first half. "Breakdown" is not so lucky.
Instead, it settles for a clever mystery scheme, and gets into a formulaic action / suspense mode that is part "Deliverance" with Western rednecks substituting for Southern hillbillies, and part "Road Warrior," complete with an eighteen-wheeler and fireball explosions in the middle of the highway. When it turns out that the evil in the movie is driven by simple human greed, it knocks the wind out of the rest of the movie. Then, when it draws into a grand finale of a road chase that climaxes with two trucks dangling precariously from a bridge like something in a James Bond movie, you begin to ask yourself at what point did "Breakdown" make this sudden left turn.
For a freshman writer/director, Mostow shows off some moves worthy of an old pro. But, at the same time, much of his direction feels forced, especially in the action scenes. He relies on cliche camera angles, such as the cars flying over the camera, and lots of long pull-away shots to show us how alone Jeff is feeling.
Russell puts everything he has into his part, but there's not much there. To his credit, he convincingly acts confused, bewildered, and angry, but it's all for naught because he doesn't have a character to play; instead, like all the other characters, he is merely a pawn in Mostow's mystery. We become involved in his dilemma not because we particularly care about the welfare of Jeff or Amy, but because we're so curious to find out what actually happened. A better movie would have made us care if Amy was found alive or dead; in "Breakdown," we just want her found.
©1997 James Kendrick