A couple of summers ago, a movie landed in the theaters without much pre-release hoopla. It was a well-paced thriller with some so-so actors that gained critical acclaim and ended up doing very well. That movie was "Speed". This year, another movie has landed in the theaters with out too much hoopla. It too is a well-paced thriller and has been received warmly by the critics. This movie is "Breakdown".
For those of you who have seen the trailers and dismissed it as merely a re-hash of "The Vanishing" are only getting half the story. True, "Breakdown" is kicked off with a similar plot point of a man's wife disappearing on a road trip, but from there, this chase picture takes off and doesn't land until the final credits roll. Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russel) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are a couple in the process of moving from Massachusetts to San Diego. They are driving through the Rockies with their loaded-up brand new Grand Cherokee, when it suddenly breaks down. An 18-wheeler stops to help them, and Red Barr (J.T. Walsh, the head of Majestic-12 in "Dark Skies"), the driver, offers to take them to Belle's Diner up the road where they can call a tow truck. Jeff, concerned about the possible theft of the Cherokee, decides to wait as his wife is given a lift by Barr to the diner. Not long after, Jeff manages to get the Cherokee started and drives up to Belle's diner. When he arrives, there is no sign of Amy and his questions to the diner's patrons about her whereabouts come up against a conspiracy of silence. As Jeff drives up to the next town, hoping to find Amy there, he sees Barr's truck. After Jeff flags him down, Barr says that they've never met before and that Jeff must have the wrong truck. A passing Sheriff is of no help either-- no evidence of a struggle or suspicious activity is found and so all that he can suggest is to go to the nearest town to have the Deputy fill out a missing persons report. Jeff returns to Belle's Diner after dropping at the Sheriff's station, and is told by a stranger that he saw Amy being taken in a truck and that the police are in on it too.
"Breakdown" is thematically similar to 1996's "The Trigger Effect", which dealt with a man coping with the breakdown of society's safeguards, stripped of all his conveniences, leaving him with only his wits to rely on. Jeff is in a state of paranoia, with a dash of xenophobia, as he searches for his wife in the surrealistic no-man's land of the American Mid-West. The hicksville locals don't seem interested in helping the city slicker, and seem to be deliberately blocking his progress. The direction by Jonathan Mostow brings this sense of overwhelming helplessness effectively onto the screen with a combination of well-choreographed crane and rotating shots, focusing on Jeff's strained expression, a reflection of both his own and the audience's unanswered question "now what?".
As Jeff gets closer to finding out what happened to his wife, we are led on a series of high-tension sequences, some of which work (like the fantastic "Road Warrior" highway chase scene in the last act) and some of which don't (such as a scene in a bank, which had some untapped dramatic possibilities). And as the film draws to a close, we see Jeff commit a heinous act of violence against the powerless antagonist, which leaves the audience stunned by the sheer depravity. Jeff, having been overwhelmed by the trap that had been set for him, falls from a state of grace to become what he had fought so hard against. Despite the fatalistic ending, "Breakdown" is definitely worth a look and a refreshing alternative to the bland special-effect extravaganzas and juvenile comedies that seem to come out of the woodwork at this time of year.