Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Breakdown (1997)

After their brand new car breaks down on a desert highway, married couple Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) and Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) feel lucky when a friendly trucker (J.T. Walsh) pops up only a couple of moments later. Because the car is full with their stuff (they are moving), the plan is for Amy to let the trucker drive her to a relatively close diner where she can organize help while Jeff stays by the car.

Alas, Amy never returns, and the Taylors’ car trouble turns out to be suspiciously easy to solve once Jeff looks at the right place. You know, it looks just like the sort of thing somebody could have done to a car while its owners where away paying for gas. With his freshly self-repaired car, Jeff makes his way to the diner, but nobody there has seen his wife, the trucker, or knows anything about anything, really. After some back and forth with the locals and the unhelpful police, all of which increases his paranoia mightily, Jeff will learn that his wife has been kidnapped by that nice trucker and some of his friends, who have their own brand of highway robbery going on. Fortunately, Jeff is played by Kurt Russell.

If one were of a mind too - and I have indeed read this in a couple of older write-ups of the film - one could certainly be annoyed about the way Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown uses Kathleen Quinlan’s character mostly as a McGuffin in its plot instead of a character with much agency. But then, it’s mostly the bad guys here who actually treat her this way (and one could argue that her dropping a truck on J.T. Walsh at the end demonstrates Amy’s feelings concerning this matter quite well) – Jeff just goes to bat for a person he loves in the only way that seems open to him. Mostow also couldn’t really avoid this kind of accusation without making a completely different film, for showing Amy doing things to free herself, or really showing anything of what happens to her, would open up the limited perspective the audience and Jeff share, and on which much of the film’s initial tension is based on. As a matter of fact, Amy does certain things to stay alive longer; how this affects Jeff, the film rather elegantly demonstrates later on in practice.

But enough about that, for most of my very mild annoyance about the kidnapped woman trope stopped early on thanks to the sheer conviction of Mostow’s film. There’s such an elegant flow, and such a believable tension coming with the escalation of Jeff’s troubles and emotional state – from confusion, to anger, to total paranoia, to increasing violence – that more abstract considerations just stopped for me after half an hour or so. Breakdown is full of clever little moments and gestures to show how much out of his depth Jeff is. The early film portrays him as your typical upper middle-class guy who has trouble effectively communicating with anyone from the working class beyond economical transactions, sending out exactly the wrong signals to everyone he meets and seemingly unable to read those around him. In fact, the film hints it is this behaviour that has gotten the Taylors in trouble at first. It will, however, turn out it isn’t a backwoods horror family threatening them but just a couple of guys with a disturbingly casual relationship to violence who see the Taylors as easy prey because of quite different signals sent by both of them.

Which then leads to a tense, expertly timed, and tightly staged series of escalating chase and action sequences that should really bring anyone watching right onto the proverbial edges of their seats. Breakdown is as good a mid-budget action thriller as you’ll probably encounter, tight and clever, changing pace and shape with verve and always at just the right moment, further improved by a fine cast in a very good mood.

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