20 Years Later: ‘Breakdown’ Still Holds Up as a Taut, Solid Thriller
“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” – George Bernard Shaw
Life rarely goes down the roads we’d like, but there’s nothing worse than feeling powerless to stop it from driving off a cliff. For the nightmarishly beset yuppie at the heart of Jonathon Mostow’s Breakdown, the only way to stem the uncontrollable tailspin of loss and humiliation he is subjected to during this horrendous cross-country trip – to once again feel he is in command of his own destiny – is to finally grab the wheel. Thankfully he eventually does, and for a few immensely satisfying violent moments, the world feels right again. Getting to that payoff in a thriller like this, however, means not falling apart like the lives of the protagonists. For cinematic tension to properly release, it must first be carefully built, violation by violation, until neither the characters nor the audience can stand it anymore. With taut pacing and a focused script that doesn’t veer off into needless subplots, Breakdown still stands as a solid example of disciplined genre filmmaking – a reminder that when it comes to suspense, less is often more.
Of course, telling that to someone who is in the process of losing everything might be a hard sell. For Jeff Taylor – broke and in the process of moving from Boston to San Diego in the hopes of a fresh start – his loving wife Amy, some scraps of Polo-clad dignity, and a brand new Jeep Cherokee are pretty much all he has in the world. Mistaken for an easy ransom mark by hillbilly trucker psychopaths who only see an expensive car and an air of upper class (appearances aren’t everything in a thriller, and that goes for heroes too – just ask Roger Thornhill), Jeff is plunged into a horror that sees his tormentors determined to strip him of not only all those meager assets, but whatever sanity and pride he still has left as well.
Kidnapping movies can go down a few different avenues, like playing up the puzzle of the search or exploring the pursuit of revenge, but Breakdown chooses to use the opportunity – and yes, heinous incidents in movies often represent a good chance for personal growth – to tackle the sense of helplessness that life can sometimes elicit when it decides to be a jerk. While its basic premise is often compared to 1988’s The Vanishing, in which a young woman on a road trip in France with her fiancee mysteriously goes missing at a petrol station, that film takes a darker, creepier route, delving deep into torturous grief and the psychology of loss. The pain of not knowing what happened to his girlfriend that fateful day is Rex’s real enemy, and discovering that truth appears to be even more important to him than actually finding his lost lover. The journey he takes, as well as the chilling person behind the answers he seeks, speaks more to how we deal with self-reflection and personal obsession than utter helplessness.
The desperation at the heart of Breakdown does have something to do with Jeff’s concern for the woman he loves, but it’s also born out of a general sense of loss, of being screwed left and right, no matter which way he turns. In the span of a day, the guy loses his wife, his car, and is forced to empty his woefully inadequate bank account. This alone would be enough to break a person’s spirit, but on top of that Jeff is also subjected to further indignities that have him questioning his meager grip on reality and self-worth. His masculinity is threatened when he backs down during a gas station confrontation with the pickup-driving goon that nearly ran him off the road, the strength of his relationship is cast into doubt when local diners at a greasy spoon suggest that his wife may have simply run off with the manly man she took a ride from, his sanity is questioned when law enforcement officials don’t believe his story (aided by the convincing lies of Red, the villainous trucker played with supreme menace by J.T.Walsh), and what little is left of his pride surely vanishes upon seeing his life savings fit neatly into a duffel bag as one dollar bills. Ever feel like you just can’t catch a break?
The original script (by Mostow) contained a prologue that explains more of Jeff’s financial situation (a war zone photographer, he blames himself for a civilian’s death and has recently quit his job), as well as hints at a strain upon his marriage due to his mental state, but these subplots were wisely discarded, distractions that would have merely muddied the tread. Adding an atonement element into the mix would have mitigated the adverse reaction to the many injustices he suffers; in a sense, he would have earned some of this, and therefore the satisfaction of seeing him ultimately overcome would not have been as great. By giving him likable traits and familiar problems, Breakdown is set up to secure sympathy by giving the main character some good ol’ Everyman relatability.
Resigned to daydreams about winning a packaged donuts contest, Jeff isn’t the typical rich man target for this brand of movie punishment, like say, Michael Douglas’ prick gajillionaire in The Game, but that’s part of what makes his descent so engaging. This already struggling guy doesn’t have a cold or malicious philosophy toward life or his fellow humans either; in fact, he’s fairly peaceable, more than willing to placate an aggressor during that mentioned gas station exchange with the asshole tough guy. That doesn’t mean he’s completely reactive, however, and though his initial feeble attempts at taking the initiative often end in frustrating failure, that he tries is endearing. He’s also kind of handy – or willing to at least poke around an engine, even if he’s no mechanic – and he’s playful enough to not be considered a downer. These traits add up to the movie version of someone who probably doesn’t deserve the harsh penalty to come, but the universe has never really cared about who it’s inflicting misery unto, something that audiences almost everywhere can empathize with. This lack of “fairness” is part of the reason why Breakdown works so well. Clearly no Alpha male, Jeff is easy to root for against both cruel fate and the hyenas it has surrounded him with.
Kurt Russell’s share of credit in achieving this affinity cannot be understated. Often known for the awesome studs he has portrayed in classics like Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, here he channels a vulnerability that perfectly encapsulates a modern man who wants to be the male protector, yet having resided so long in a world where macho-ness is mostly unneeded, is unprepared to do so – at first. Russell also excels at boiling, and his eventual transformation into a Dirty Harry avenger (albeit still with a bit of believable stumbling) who tortures his torturers with brakes that stop on a dime, performs action stunts on speeding semis, and expresses all the rage that’s been building up inside both him and us as he kicks Red in the face hits all the right notes. It’s an efficient, affecting turn, reflecting the sensibility of Breakdown as a whole.
Director Jonathon Mostow (U-571, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) never wastes a moment in this lean, 93-minute trip, never milking either the mystery or the action for more than it’s worth. Each scene serves its purpose, building to the next. Without the earlier embarrassing moments in the diner, the anger and exasperation of the fruitless encounter with Red and the sheriff wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Without the conversation outside the bank, there would be less paranoia mounting within. Without some fleeting moments between a monstrous father and his unknowing son, a dining room standoff wouldn’t have nearly the tense complexity. Cinematographer Douglas Milsome uses the space afforded by the vast southwestern setting to create engaging compositions that emphasize his characters’ places in the universe, and tight editing by Derek Brechin and Kevin Stitt reinforces Mostow’s strong staging efforts. Though not Hitchcockian in either deftness or artistry, not being a masterpiece is nothing to be ashamed of; Breakdown is solid genre work with a high level of precise craftsmanship all the way through to the sweet end.
Though things get a tad ridiculous in those waning minutes, with a desperate vehicle chase in which shots are fired, beater cars flip like they’re auditioning for the next Dukes of Hazzard, and a tanker jackknifes simply because it looks cool, some oomph was needed for punctuation. The whole mess culminates when the man who has committed countless terrors with his truck is flattened beneath it, delivering bloodthirsty closure in the process. It’s been argued by Roger Ebert that the ending is out of place and character for this sort of movie, where the protagonists must maintain a certain level of civility to not cross over into antihero territory, but what’s important here is who commits the act. While Jeff has already essentially regained some measure of influence over his life again by achieving the rescue and besting the outside forces attempting to exert themselves upon him, Kathleen Quinlan’s Amy has also been helpless the entire film, relegated to near MacGuffin-status while locked away unseen, unable to even participate in the struggle for her life. She deserves her own moment to regain control, to achieve some peace – how could she otherwise ever be happy? One pull of a lever shifts the balance back, a decision that allows Amy to take ownership over her existence once again.
The conclusion functions as a nice bow on a neatly-wrapped movie package; not flashy, but with a single-minded focus on delivering a sharp, entertaining ride that demonstrates how to exercise skilled control over the story of people who have lost their own. By avoiding any aimless drifting, Breakdown continues to steer audiences toward genre movie heaven.
May 16, 2017 at 12:26 am
So I LOVE this movie. I went to the drive in back in 1997, It was one of the few times I had been to a drive-in and they had a double bill of this and I believe Jurassic Park 2. I had never heard of this movie and it blew me away. It should have been the main event, not Jurassic Park 2. Either way, it was one of the best movie outings of my life. I loved discovering these gems without knowing anything about the movie ahead of time. You can”t get that experience anymore because of the internet.
May 16, 2017 at 3:07 pm
Oh man, I feel sorry for Jurassic Park 2 having to go after this… I went and saw it in theaters alone because none of my friends had heard of it and didn’t care. I’m pretty sure Siskel and Ebert was how I found out about it, but I totally agree that those discoveries used to be amazing, and are much harder to find now.
May 17, 2017 at 10:42 am
Yeah I remember just hating Jurassic Park 2. Imagine seeing this amazing movie you’ve never heard of that just blows you away and right after you are watching dinosaurs swimming to NYC. I’ve never bothered to watch JP2 ever again. I remember hating everything about it.
May 17, 2017 at 2:36 pm
I’ve tried re-watching it, but it really isn’t good at all. Too bad. I actually enjoyed the novel.