Breakdown (1997)

D: Jonathan Mostow
S: Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan

Enjoyable thriller which although made in a familiar mould offers the pleasures of a horror tale told round the fireplace on a cold night: you may have heard it before, but the terror is in the telling. A New England couple (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) travelling through dusty and deserted America find themselves stranded by a mechanical failure in their brand new jeep. A helpful truck driver (J.T. Walsh) stops and offers to take Quinlan to a phone to call for help. When she fails to return, Russell is plunged into a nightmare. No one seems to have seen his wife and no one will help him find her, and when he meets with the helpful trucker, he claims never to have seen him before in his life.

Okay, so it's The Vanishing, The Lady Vanishes, Frantic, and countless others, but writer/director Mostow handles things with skill. With careful pacing and good use of both actors and landscape, he unfolds a gripping yarn with a mounting sense of paranoia, rising to a satisfying (if slightly preposterous) action climax and resolution. The script, co-written by TV vet Mostow and Sam Montgomery manages to both use and exploit generic cliches. Its twists are mostly predicated upon playing on the audience's expectations of situation and character, and though in the initial stages it makes you groan with recognition, the film quickly draws you into its labyrinth of suspicion with well-judged and unexpected developments which nonetheless grow naturally from the story. Mostow also has fun with the ambiguities of Walsh's wonderful characterisation of the primary antagonist, the helpful trucker who has all kinds of hidden facets which keep him interesting. Russell is less layered, but he plays the increasing desperation of his character well. The actor seems to have overcome the bout of rigor mortis which affected him in Escape from L.A. and turns in a performance which even non-fans will probably appreciate. He makes a sympathetic and believable protagonist whose invention under pressure comes from his desire to find his wife against rising odds rather than McGyver-type contrivance. Though he is not quite the Hitchcockian everyman (there's still a touch of the action hero to his antics at times), he is a reasonable nineteen-nineties urban equivalent.

The landscape and environment is used well to evoke Russell's sense of oppression and abandonment. Though there is a Deliverance-like feeling to the film that beyond the limits of urban America lies a hostile and twisted dystopia, this again serves a generic purpose rather than adding up to some kind of statement. Aided by Doug Milsome's crisp photography of the mid-western deserts, and his equally effective evocation of the dark, enclosed interior spaces of roadside diners and rural barns, it amounts to something like the original The Vanishing, or even The Hitcher, a relatively small scale and largely derivative film which nonetheless holds up well and tends to linger in the mind. Events and characters seem organic in a way which benefits the atmosphere enormously, and though again ascribing to certain clichés about the geographical area and its social profile, the film uses these to its advantage with neat details and twists (watch for the child playing the computer game Doom on a large screen TV in a rural farmhouse).

Breakdown is well worth a look, and proves that the tradition of effective craftsmanship continues in American cinema even given the inflated and uninvolving films which have been made there of late. It is a neat, tidy package which evokes memories of many films (including Steven Spielberg's Duel) but still has an identity of its own. Perfect late night video fodder and a film which may have escaped your attention on its first run given the length of time for which it was previewed in Ireland only to be followed by a short and limited release.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.