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What To Watch: Driving Paranoia in ‘Breakdown’ (1997)

Tense thriller with Kurt Russell is still one of the best in the genre.

Breakdown is a 1997 thriller about a couple whose car breaks down in the desert only to have a nightmare befall them when they think help has arrived.

If there is anything movies have taught us, and let’s not pretend like they haven’t, it’s don’t–and we’re serious now–don’t stop while driving in the desert. For anything. It’s all bad. Unless maybe you’re Bugsy Siegel in the 1992 classic Bugsy. He saw an oasis in the sands, which eventually became Las Vegas. But even he didn’t end up so good. So there you go. The desert is just a home to all kinds of hell-ish incarnate and so if you’re ever doing so, just keep on driving.

Breakdown, 1997 © Dino De Laurentiis Company

With Breakdown, a film with an almost genius double-meaning title, the desert claims another happy couple in a movie that was a minor box office hit though critically-acclaimed, its script and pacing praised as well as some strong performances. It’s nothing groundbreaking and indeed might feel familiar, but nonetheless, is an often jarringly-good bit of tension with an under-rated screen villain and a powerfully-effective star turn from Kurt Russell. Let’s see why.

THE STORY: Written and directed by Jonathan Mostow, the premise is a simple one even if the context isn’t as Jeff Taylor (Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) hit the open road in their new Jeep Grand Cherokee, traveling from Boston to San Diego. After a wee altercation at a desert town truck stop, the pair head back onto the road but suffer a, well, breakdown as the Jeep sputters out.

Breakdown
Breakdown, 1997 © Dino De Laurentiis Company

Not long after, a kindly driver named Red Barr (J. T. Walsh) comes along and soon Jeff decides to stay with the Jeep and Amy rides off with Red where he promises to bring her to a nearby diner to for road assistance. And right away you’re thinking, well, there goes Amy, and yup, you’re right. Gone girl, to borrow from another. Wouldn’t be much of a movie is she didn’t. So after Jeff discovers that the Jeep had been tampered with, he gets it started and heads for the restaurant, though no one there has seen Amy or Red. But we don’t believe them. In a panic, Jeff hits the road, and soon comes upon the truck driver again, and forces him off the road, even flagging down a local sheriff, though Red claims he’s never seen Jeff before and a search of the semi reveals no trace of Amy. The cop lets Barr go and now Jeff’s on the hunt, but it’s not long before he finds there’s a conspiracy at play and to find his wife, and survive himself, he’s got to become something he never knew lay inside him.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Perhaps that should read ‘what to listen for’ as the film is scored by legendary composter Basil Poledouris, and is almost Hitchcockian in layering the film with atmosphere and tension, never overwhelming the experience but subtle enough to give the film a real boost in establishing and maintaining the tone. Moody and driven (for lack of a better term), it’s a step above the standard generic stuff we hear too often in these kinds of movies.

Breakdown, 1997 © Dino De Laurentiis Company

Best though is Mostow’s direction and storytelling, who puts together a gripping little narrative that builds with some pretty impressive style. The movie begins as a potboiler mystery and morphs steadily into a potboiler action but does so with plenty of eye-candy and brain-twister in both. While the story itself might be populated by a few unconvincing supporting characters and a familiar theme, what Mostow does is craft a deliciously-pulpy thriller that pulses forward right from the opening frames. There’s a terrific sense of urgency throughout and Mostow keeps the film barreling along with barely a hitch, led by a pair of authentic performances from Walsh and Russell. While it’s too bad Quinlan disappears for most of the movie, she does have presence … and a killer ending.

A GREAT MOMENT: If you don’t know the late J.T. Walsh, this is a good place to start changing that, a character actor that ended up mostly-known for his bad guys even though he delivered a career-long (cut short) set of performances that time and time again proved he could do just about anything.

Breakdown
Breakdown, 1997 © Dino De Laurentiis Company

Here, he is terrifying, playing Barr as a silky smooth madman leading a ragtag cadre of hooligans preying on opportunities that travel along the deserted roads. While he keeps it believable right from the start, there is a great moment when we see him transition from kindly roadside Samaritan to obvious accomplice. When Jeff manages to track him down, thinking he is still a legit good man, the shock and confusion of Barr’s declaration that he’s never seen Jeff before is a great twist and we can’t help but wonder immediately how we would feel if it were us. The scene is crucial in setting up what follows, and while the numbers involved and their success rate might be hard to swallow, Barr is breathlessly sinister enough to make it work throughout. We want Jeff to find him and beat him. Bad.

Breakdown
Breakdown, 1997 © Dino De Laurentiis Company

THE TALLY: There are almost too many formulaic action thrillers to name, a genre packed with retreads and conveyor belt-like productions, and the 90s saw a deluge hit theaters, mostly 1,2,3 by the numbers releases that didn’t do much more than change the names on the cast list. While Breakdown certainly has its share of top tens from the hit list of genre tropes, there is a lot of here that feels fresh, despite the everyman-becomes-a-reluctant hero, including a sensational road-warrior-esque finale that decides wholeheartedly that Breakdown wants to be about action. It’s great stuff, especially for fans of movies who ask what-could-possibly-happen-next? That’s it’s all done with practical effects makes all the more believable. This is terrific stunt work. Twenty years after release, Breakdown is still a great ride, even if modern technology would render the whole scenario nearly impossible today. It’s what to watch.

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