Breakdown (1997): Part 2 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
Continued from Part 1...
Ebert took most issue with the bank scene, both for the donuts/money connection and the overall strategy, thinking Russell acted too awkward for belief. I suppose I see the point, but I also think it wasn’t about creating tension in the bank so much as capturing the tension, desperation, and transformation in Jeff’s face. Thus why it was shot in close ups. Yes, if Mostow went wide it could have been awkward, and yet I also think of all the times I’ve heard a very intense discussion whispered between a patron and employee as they’re both trying to figure out a situation; it might look awkward, but rarely do I assume the patron has lost their spouse. I grew to love the way Russell’s expresses himself with his eyes, thinking back to his prowess in Backdraft ('91). This scene allows that ability to soar, as he tries with all his might to make a smart decision, trying to stay clear and articulate, all while the stress overwhelms him.
And so begins the most exciting action sequence of the movie where Russell unleashes his complete fury, in which after he drops off the money he is duct taped and driven by Earl out of town who explains how they’re going to kill his wife. Jeff had grabbed a pen at the bank and stabs Earl, then tying him up into the seats, with a thin strand of duct tape around his neck and head cushion. Jeff then speeds off, demanding Earl tell him where his wife is. When Earl refuses, Jeff slams on the breaks, strangling Earl every time he says no. It’s such a simple idea for a torture scene, and yet I’ve never seen it before or since.
Jeff gets the information and heads off to get to his wife, and while it’s during these last twenty five minutes that the film begins to dip, it wasn’t as bad as I recalled. I remember turning it off at times as a kid, as though the mystery had been solved and now it was just about killing the bad guys. I do wish they could have have preserved the mystery a bit longer, perhaps not revealing so quickly where Amy was so much as showing various places she could be, leaving the viewer to guess. When Jeff follows Red back to his house and the crew appears, Jeff finds his wife locked in a cellar, grabs a gun and heads inside where everyone's eating breakfast as though it's an average day on the farm. Red’s kid then enters the room with a loaded rifle in hand and in J.T.’s creepiest moment, moments after he tries to comfort his son, he tells his boy to pull the trigger and kill Jeff. I remember being a kid and wondering what I would do if my father said the same.
After an exciting shootout and a great special effect involving the semi-truck driving through an old camper, we returned to its Hitchcockian roots, offering a Big Climactic Set Piece 2.0 in having a semi truck try and push a pick up off a bridge with Jeff and Amy inside, while Amy gets her leg stuck and Jeff and Red fight while hanging from the lorry. It was interesting to read that Ebert didn’t mind the scene so much as the conclusion. When after Red falls, remaining paralyzed on the rock bed below, Amy turns the wheel in such a way that the semi-truck falls and smashes a paralyzed Red who was bound to die. Ebert thought it was overkill. I suppose they didn’t need to have Red remain alive from the fall, but if possible, I’d probably want to be put out of my misery by being smashed.
Of course, in this day and age, the glaring offense is Amy’s relegation to a woman with a bit of personality in the beginning and entering into complete passivity by the end. Even after she’s finally rescued from the refrigerator and nearly suffocating to death, she then gets her leg stuck in the seat, forced to wait yet again for Jeff to save her. There’s an argument to be made about the movie being about men enforcing or locating their masculinity, thus the complete lack of women, but it’s just not a very good one. It left me wondering how it would have worked reversed, and while I think a passive and weak man would have been just as offensive, the right woman could have played the role (Charlize Theron immediately comes to mind). Ultimately, it could have worked better if both characters had personality.
Nevertheless, a great thriller from the era.
BELOW: Hitchcock would be proud. Ebert thought it was overkill
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