Retro Film Review: Breakdown (1997)

in #aaa2 months ago


The most effective thrillers are usually those that have simple plots, ordinary settings and ordinary characters. In such cases the audience can easily suspend disbelief and empathise with protagonists who often experience things that can, at least theoretically, happen to anyone. Jonathan Mostow was aware of that when he wrote and directed Breakdown in 1997.

The plot starts with Jeff (played by Kurt Russell) and Amy Taylor (played by Kathleen Quinlan), Boston yuppie couple who has just lost their jobs. Their only valuable possession is SUV with which they travel across America, hoping to start new and better life on the West Coast. Following the series of minor and seemingly insignificant incidents in small town somewhere in Southwest USA, their car breaks down in the middle of the empty road. Taylors are stranded, unable to call towing service. Help comes in the form of Red (played by J.T. Walsh), kind-hearted trucker who offers them a ride Amy to the nearest phone. Amy takes a ride while Jeff stays in order to watch the car. After couple of hours it becomes apparent that Amy and towing service won't show up. Jeff starts working on car himself and patches it up just enough to get to the nearest bar only to find that nobody saw or heard his wife or mysterious trucker. Jeff continues his desperate search and finds Red, but the trucker claims that he never saw him or his wife before. Jeff contacts local police, but they are sceptical towards his story and think that Amy simply left him. Jeff is nevertheless determined to find Amy and slowly discovers that her disappearance might be a part of some sinister conspiracy.

Plot of Breakdown isn't very original. Mostow borrowed heavily from films like Spielberg's Duel, Sluizer's The Vanishing and classic Hitchock thrillers with their concept of "ordinary man in extraordinary situation". In case of Breakdown that "extraordinary" situation is actually very ordinary - anyone who get stuck on the road in scarcely populated areas is at the mercy of strangers. Mostow adds socio-economic context to the story - just like protagonists seem vulnerable in desert landscapes of Southwest, they are vulnerable in their interaction with local population, blue-collar workers who resent yuppies' "sophistication" and assumed wealth. Film's atmosphere is enhanced by good acting. Late J.T. Walsh, one of Hollywood's best character actors, excels in one of his last roles. He delivers perfect and natural transformation from kind-hearted Samaritan into manipulative monster, while allowing his character to be more complex than usual Hollywood villains. Kurt Russell, on the other hand, doesn't fare that well because Mostow doesn't provide his character with credible transformation from ordinary man into action superhero in second half. The ending of the film, on the other hand, does succumb to Hollywood cliches with its spectacular plot resolution, but some of the cliches are also avoided. Breakdown is far from being perfect example of the genre, but it is well-made and provides audience with solid 90 minutes of pure entertainment.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on April 22nd 2004)

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