Reel Retrospective: Breakdown (1997): A thriller which pushes our nerves to the breaking point

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Breakdown has that one asset vital to any great suspense thriller: a tremendous hook. Right from the opening frames the film builds a queasy tension and never lets up over the remaining 90 minutes.

Said hook is planted brilliantly by director/co-writer Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3), who hits on the Hitchcockian notion that withholding information from both the protagonist and the audience will increase the sense of dread. ‘I’m looking for my wife’, fish-out-of-water Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) explains to the clientele of a backwater desert diner. Jeff has agreed to meet his spouse, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) at the diner following some car trouble during a cross-country move to California. He expects to meet her there because she hitched a lift to the diner ahead of him with an ostensibly friendly trucker, ‘Red’ Barr (JT Walsh). What could possibly go wrong?

Don’t speak too soon. Because the diner’s surly bartender proves genuinely ignorant to Amy’s whereabouts. Either that or he’s hiding something. Regardless, Amy isn’t there. ‘Looks like she got away from you, cowboy’, a local woman caws at Jeff, whose nervous smile barely masks a sense of mounting unease. Where has his wife got to? Stepping outside into the vast desert (which, perversely, has now gained a sense of claustrophobic menace), one senses the screws being tightened ruthlessly by the director. But to give away any more would be to ruin the surprises of this cracking thriller, arguably one of the most underrated of the 90s.

Suffice it to say, Jeff’s predicament rapidly worsens, especially when he finds himself up against the monstrous Walsh, whose amiable facade it turns out was indeed a cover for something far more sinister. The tightly constructed screenplay from Mostow (who reportedly got the idea while driving through Las Vegas with his wife) and Sam Montgomery is quite brilliant at placing the audience in Russell’s fevered shoes, and, alchemically, it’s also a script that plays to the star’s strengths. Always an expert at playing beleaguered, reluctant heroes (see The Thing and Executive Decision), in Breakdown, Russell gives one of his best performances.

The key to the actor’s success lies in his plausibility. Even when events spiral out of control, Russell is always believable, superb as an ordinary man caught up in circumstances which threaten to get ever more extraordinary by the moment. By filtering the action through the eyes of his frantic lead, Mostow consciously aims to present things as plausible, if not realistic per se. Of course, we know it’s all deeply silly but the director works hard to make the scenario as believable as possible.

Hence the hero is no crackshot marksman, but appears genuinely rattled when forced to use violence to find his wife. The main villain threatens to become a one-dimensional archetype, until it’s revealed that he lives a happy home life complete with wife and child. A fraught excursion beneath a moving truck is not undertaken with James Bond-style finesse but with lots of grunting, agonising and peril. Such visceral and emotional details really do lend Breakdown a compelling, nail-biting quality.

And it’s not just intimate human terror that the film portrays effectively. The agoraphobic dust bowl of the desert is also exploited brilliantly, an arid wilderness which could conceal any number of hideous secrets (in a quietly wrenching moment, Russell scans missing persons pictures at a local police station, terrified that his wife has become another statistic lost in the baking hot ether). Basil Poledouris’ nervous, rattly score is another major plus in ratcheting up the suspense.

Wearing his influences openly on his sleeve (unsurprisingly Duel comes to mind more than once), Mostow directs with confidence, flair and wit, relying on a fundamental battle between a decent hero and a truly repellent clutch of villains who really do deserve their comeuppance. Walsh, who passed away the year after the film was released, is a hulking, intimidating presence, and the perfect antagonist for Russell, backed up as he is by an equally revolting posse, brought to life by character performers Jack Noseworthy, MC Gainey and others. Ultimately, Breakdown is a daft story treated with intelligence, and a familiar thriller underscored with consummate flair and professionalism.

In other words: pure cinema.