Breakdown (1997) Movie Retro Review by John Walsh

BREAKDOWN

Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writers: Jonathan Mostow (story), Jonathan Mostow (screenplay)
Stars: Kurt Russell,  J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan

Well, I’m continuing on with the whole ‘retro’ review theme and I thought I’d share my views on what’s becoming a bit of a forgotten classic from 1997. (It’s not George of the Jungle or Batman and Robin) No, it’s Jonathon Mostow’s Breakdown, which honestly picked a terrible year to release, because it’s a brilliant film with a captivating story and great performances. With the competition that year however it was never going to get the love it deserved.

It follows Jeffrey (Kurt Russell) and Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), a husband and wife in the process of journeying through the barren desert environment of Utah on their way to San Diego. Their old life in Boston left them in financial hardship, you see and Jeffrey’s hoping his new job will be just the boost they need.

They first hit our screens in their flashy, red, pick-up truck narrowly avoiding a pair of rednecks that pull out right in front of them. Things don’t get any better upon meeting said rednecks further down the road at a gas station. The driver going by the name of Earl (M.C. Gainey), takes umbrage at the incident and begins throwing his weight around and when the car stalls shortly afterwards in the middle of nowhere, it becomes increasingly clear that this just ain’t going to be their day.

The redneck duo arrive on the scene once more, passing the pair initially before stalking them from a distance for a few nervous minutes. This brief tense moment (a sign of things to come) ends when a trucker appears on the scene apparently eager to assist. Christening himself as the Red Barr (J.T. Walsh), he takes a quick look at the truck and kindly offers to take them to Belle’s, a small diner down the road. Jeffrey, of course, isn’t keen on leaving the car on its lonesome and decides to stay, letting Amy ride on to call for a tow truck. Whilst his logic is understandable, you can’t help but feel that it’s his wife he should be more concerned about, which prophetically turns out to be the case.

This is a fantastically well made film from Mostow, absolutely bursting at the seams with tension, action and mystery. It of course shares a massive amount of similarities with the more recently released Nocturnal Animals, a film I also reviewed. I do recall mentioning at the time that my favourite part of that movie was the film within a film, action heavy, mystery component.

Breakdown has that on steroids and thankfully without the layer of pretentiousness that afflicted Mr. Ford’s creation. And whilst the villain within Nocturnal Animals fictitious setting lacked a rational reason for his actions (he was just a psycho that like killing people), the Red Barr has it in an abundance. Superficially, it plays on the ingrained, ideological hatred between southern republicans and northern democrats, but the reality is much simpler.

Sure, he’s surrounded by hillbilly, rednecks of dubious mental fortitude, but Barr is a man motivated by money, plain and simple. He targets affluent looking road-trippers for the sole reason of robbing them and there’s a very telling moment when Jeffrey stumbles upon several boxes full with personal belongings of previous victims, hinting at the cold, callousness of the man and his cronies. J.T. Walsh’s performance plays a massive part in making the character so believable too.

Right from the first moment you see him step out of his truck in a stereotypical trucker cap and double denim, there’s an immediate sense of uneasiness despite his forced, faux politeness. Walsh imbues the character with palpable personality, even if it does become increasingly dislikable once it begins to be fleshed out. I know it’s a spoiler, but his end is easily one of the most satisfying put to film.

I run out of superlatives to describe Kurt Russell. The man is a fantastic actor, one of my favourites and much like the majority of the cast within Breakdown, he’s perfectly cast in his role of Jeffrey. I particularly liked the way the character gradually ditched the slight middle-class arrogance for a more aggressive rambunctiousness as the growing realisation of what was happening began to dawn on him. His little angry outbursts, first directed at the Belle diner owner soon developed into the full on torturing of his nemesis Earl with tape and some hard braking.

Jeffrey is just an ordinary man and certainly not a willing action hero, doing everything to rescue his wife. It was a role that demanded lots of physicality, including wading through rapids to climbing up the side of houses and Russell eased his way through it in a manner that Tom Cruise would be proud of.

My preference is for mystery dramas like this to build into an exciting finale. Se7en did it breathtakingly well, Nocturnal Animals less so, and whilst not quite reaching the levels of the former, Breakdown certainly builds into a fitting climax. The confrontation at Barr’s ranch develops into a good ten or fifteen minutes of action fuelled craziness, involving his unsuspecting wife and son, not to mention a thrilling chase scene with a truck that ushered back uncomfortable memories of Terminator 2.

Its terrifically done and a fitting end to a highly enjoyable film. By all accounts it was a relative success on its release and did make a profit, but the sheer plethora of great films that year meant it probably didn’t get the level of recognition it deserves. I suspect a large majority of people will have seen it before, but if you haven’t then I absolutely recommend giving it a watch.

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