Breakdown: 25 years of full-throttle thrills, chills, and characters worth road-tripping into danger with
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the May 27, 2022 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
When Breakdown debuted in May of 1997, it wasn’t like minimalist highway thrillers were anything new. Heck, they weren’t even unique when Steven Spielberg revitalized the genre with his release of Duel in 1971. I also cannot say that director Jonathan Mostow’s scenario of a Boston man traveling with his wife to a new job in San Diego — only for her to go missing and for no one to believe him — was out of the ordinary. Alfred Hitchcock already did it best: 1938’s The Lady Vanishes is still the gold standard on that front.
And yet, 25 years after its release, Breakdown remains an unforgettable ticking-clock thriller that’s only improved with age. Mostow and co-writer Sam Montgomery’s screenplay is a model of efficiency. Each piece fits into the next with pinpoint precision. Its simplicity is striking, and because the central premise is wholly believable, the sensational and impossible aspects become equally genuine as the film goes along.
The setup to the pending madness is glorious. Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) are driving cross-country in a red Jeep Cherokee. In the middle of the desert, their vehicle breaks down. Red Barr (J.T. Walsh), a kindly semitruck driver, stops and offers to drive Amy to a truck stop a few miles up the road so she can call for a tow. She never returns.
From there, things are off and running. No one believes Jeff that Amy has been kidnapped. Red even coolly convinces a belligerent state trooper that not only does he not know what happened to this man’s wife, but also that he’s never even met Jeff before. Jeff is made impotent, stranded in literal backcountry nowhere, looking like he’s gone insane.
Much like audiences knew Margaret Lockwood’s determined Iris was telling the truth about May Whitty’s kindly governess Miss Froy in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, they are equally in the know that Amy has not run off and that Red is a lying bastard. But Mostow allows Jeff’s psychological discombobulation to create an aura of uncertainty that’s so riddled with anxiety and tension that the overall effect is paralyzing.
Russell is outstanding as the mild-mannered everyman forced to find an internal fortitude and resilience in the face of unimaginable danger. You can feel the weight of the circumstances crashing down upon him, as the accomplished Hollywood superstar gives one of the finest performances of his six-decade (and counting) career. Russell goes for broke both from a physical standpoint and an emotional one, too, making Jeff’s full conversion into a go-getting man of action believable with every initially hesitant step.
He’s matched by the late, great Walsh. A veteran character actor who made an indelible impression in every motion picture he appeared in, no matter how big or small the role, his performance here as the jovial, yet still menacing, Red Barr is hauntingly beautiful. There is a quiet minimalism to what Walsh is doing, an ease to his movements and a calm certainty to his vocal inflections that would be otherwise charming if they weren’t so ominously disconcerting. It’s a spectacular, larger-than-life portrait of captivating villainy. Red’s smarmy grin is more lethal than Michael Meyers, Jason Vorhees, and Freddy Krueger combined.
Comparisons to 1970s thrillers like the aforementioned Duel and even George Miller’s original Mad Max were a dime a dozen back when Breakdown was first released, and while those were apt, I do think that time has shown that Mostow constructed a scenario representative of the change between analog and digital realities. Not just with the technology — although the size of the few working cellular phones does warrant a couple of hearty chuckles — but most notably in the core relationships between the various characters.
What do I mean? Red and his closest compatriots in backroads interstate crime understand that times are changing, and that their days of ruining the lives of unlucky travelers for their own financial gain are coming to an end — but they’ll keep taking advantage of the situation until the last possible second. As for Jeff and Amy, they’re excitedly moving on into a brave new world they barely understand yet are eager to learn about, knowing that if they can do it together, they’ll be able to overcome all impediments, no matter what they may be.
Mostow doesn’t overemphasize any of this, however, remaining laser-focused on Jeff’s journey and transformation as he puts the pieces of this puzzle together and comes up with a last-ditch plan to save Amy from Red’s clutches. The film goes from being a paranoia thriller throwback to a cat-and-mouse tale of subterfuge to a full-throttle vehicular chase flick, complete with muscle car fireballs and shotgun blasts through the windshield, and it’s magnificent.
But as breathtaking as that may be — and it is pretty dang incredible, considering there’s almost zero digital trickery and most of the carnage was staged for real — it’s Mostow’s ability to keep his film’s hero from being dwarfed by the outsized melodrama that has allowed Breakdown to continue to resonate with viewers for 25 years. Jeff could be anyone. Jeff is everyone. If he can succeed in facing down obstacles as severe as those showcased here, why can’t we do the same?
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Breakdown is available on Blu-ray, and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment and to purchase digitally on multiple platforms. It is also currently streaming on HBO Max.