Breakdown (1997): Part 1 of 2
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writer:Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery
Cinematographer: Douglas Milsome
Producer: Dino De Laurentiis and Martha De Laurentiis
by Jon Cvack
I had seen this movie close to half a dozen times growing up. I recalled the eerie first act in which a couple’s car breaks down in the middle of the desert and the wife hitches a ride with a trucker to get some help, never returning, forcing the husband to walk to town where no one had seen her. I loved the beginning, though remembered losing interest as the story carried on, tanking as they get to the barn and the mystery is unraveled. I figured I’d turn it off once I lost interest and instead discovered an incredible 90s Hitchcockian thriller that I was anxious to finish up.
The yuppie couple involves Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell; Kathleen Quinlan), who are driving cross country in their brand new Jeep, coming from Boston and moving to San Diego, narrowly hitting an old beat up truck and later meeting the aggressive driver at a gas station. It’s here we get the first taste of Russell’s stellar performance and nuance; with his squinty eyes speaking volumes as he provides a fine balance between passive with the slightest hint of underlying aggression. I had forgotten where this character goes, and knowing it would only evolve, it was fascinating to see Russell’s impatience and obsession take over.
As with any good screenplay, it’s the seemingly insignificant details that all add up in near perfect order. After the confrontation, Amy shows off some of the junk food she bought at the station, particularly the donuts which are offering a giveaway of either $90,000 or 90,000 donuts (before even getting anywhere, this seems like a grossly disproportionate prize, as they should have at least offered 90,000 donut packs as otherwise they’re worth pennies on the dollar).
Jeff mentions selling the donuts for thirty cents each to pay off the car. Meaning it’s worth about $27,000. He then says something about the poor state of their finances and we learn that while the couple is comfortable, they have very little in liquid assets - as it’s all tied up in the car and likely the home they’re moving to. Like the donuts, this becomes a seemingly minor detail that becomes important as we piece together the story, which I didn’t at all notice the last time I watched this, and wouldn’t have understood growing up watching it. The Jeep then starts to putter then stall, forcing them to pull to the side of the road.
Jeff and Amy can’t understand the problem, as it’s a brand new car. Being in the middle of the desert and unsure of what to do, a semi-truck comes roaring down the highway, driven by Warren “Red” Barr (J. T. Walsh), who has one of the purest bad guy faces that has ever brazed the screen (unfortunately I learned he died only a year later of a heart attack at the age of 54). It’s with that face that his polite offer to drive Amy back to town sits so uneasy. Amy takes off and Jeff waits, hanging by the car for hours until finally checking the engine again, discovering that someone removed all of the electrical wiring. He hooks it back up and heads to town where we get one of my favorite types of scenes - The Person Entering the Diner Looking for Someone (seen in Back to the Future ('85) or The Killers ('46), for instance). We meet Jack McGee in an awesome role as the bartender, who declares that he hasn’t seen anybody, leaving me wondering long after whether or not he had anything to do with the situation, possibly getting a kickback, or if he just hated yuppies.
With no avenues left, Jeff leaves, soon coming across Earl once again, forcing him off the road and providing us our first taste of Savage Jeff. The Sheriff then arrives, played by Rex Linn and offering yet another amazing supporting performance. And in the film’s best scene, close to up there with any Hitchcock film, we watch as Earl pretends he’s never he’s never seen Jeff before and Jeff then Breaks Down (get it? I actually think this is a smart and clever title), demanding the Sheriff search the truck. He does and looks to the rear cabin and back of the truck, which holds nothing but a few boxes.
It raises such simple and juicy questions - what happened to the wife, and why doesn’t Earl know who Jeff is? Is this in Jeff’s head? Is it a supernatural element? Is Earl a twin? I can’t remember what I initially thought when first watching this, but as a kid, I know I had an uncanny type of feel, as though there was something beyond any of that; maybe involving the entire town. It’s a question that so few films have answered well (Joy Ride ('01), most of Hitchcock, pre-mid millennium de Palma, etc.) and so many have failed at (Identity ('03) being the most tragic for how great the movie was until the explanation). I believe it’s this that made me have a different experience, for as a kid I couldn’t understand the nuanced motives, hoping for a better answer, and now accepting that it’s much more about the journey, as the ending is far from the greatest, but relatively high on the scale of satisfaction.
Jeff returns to the diner, again asking about his wife, demanding the bartender turn over the receipts so he can check the work when the bartender pulls a gun on him, forcing Jeff out where he meets a seemingly impaired young man, Billy (Jack Noseworthy) who asks if he’s looking for his wife, saying he knows the men who took her and that the police are in on it. Jeff drives off, turning down the wrong road that leads to a dead end, giving the feel of an inescapable town - an idea that Identity would explore half a decade later and be unable to resolve. Breakdown makes the idea work by avoiding any need for truth. The extraordinary journey could be just as much an experience or vision of hell (perhaps for living a selfish life), as it is true life. Earl’s pickup truck appears and he takes out his rifle, ready to kill. With nowhere to go, Jeff rolls over the hill and speeds down toward a roaring river, hoping to jump it and landing right in the middle of the current, taking on water and escaping, hiding in the woods until Billy bludgeons him in the head and he falls, waking up with Billy, Earl, and Red all standing above, with Red demanding Jeff to get all the money that his wife said she had - $90,000. Jeff pieces together the puzzle and heads down to the bank. This is a big detail that I had completely failed to comprehend as a kid, figuring he had the money and simply faked how much he took out (which is pretty cynical way to for a kid to remember something, if I did). Jeff has only about $9,000 in his bank account, and that’s with maxing out his credit card. That is, the $90,000 was the way for his wife to send confirmation that he was alive (something Jeff doubted up until that point).
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Gotta love unnecessarily elaborate 90s action scenes
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