The fear of vast, wide-open spaces, not to mention demented redneck cowboys, fuels “Breakdown,” a tremendously tense thriller that expertly keeps tightening the screws throughout its taut running time. A very simple idea exploited to its fullest extent, this high-quality suspenser should open well on the basis of Kurt Russell’s name and then maintain strong numbers until the early summer behemoths begin squeezing it out of playing time.
In his bigscreen feature debut, director and co-writer Jonathan Mostow displays real flair for visceral cinema while adroitly sidestepping many of the usual tripwires of this sort of film, particularly silly coincidences, stupid decisions on the part of characters with whom you’re supposed to identify, and superheroics performed by ordinary people.
The central figure here admirably maintains his Everyman status throughout. Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) are on a drive moving from Massachusetts to California when their bright red Jeep Grand Cherokee breaks down in a particularly desolate part of the Southwest. Having already been menaced by a belligerent driver, they reluctantly decide to accept offer of a solicitous truck driver, Red (J.T. Walsh), to drive Amy to the nearest cafe some miles down the road, where she can call for assistance.
Before long, Jeff is able to restart his car himself, but when he arrives at the diner, Amy isn’t there and no one admits to having seen her. Driving frantically around the area, Jeff spots Red’s rig and runs it off the road, only to be told by the beefy trucker that he’s never seen him or his wife before. A cop turns up, only to suggest that Jeff report his wife as a missing person, and Red drives off.
Pic skillfully maintains Jeff’s p.o.v. as it presses ahead. A simpleton back at the cafe, Billy (Jack Noseworthy), confidentially tells Jeff where to look for his wife, which leads him into the gunsights of the first hostile cowboy, Earl (M.C. Gainey). After a long chase and a ride downriver, the whole gang of desert scum, of which Red is the ringleader, roughs Jeff up and instructs him to order a wire for $90,000 from his Boston bank account. Although Jeff has nowhere near that much money, he follows instructions as far as he can, in the hope that, somewhere along the line, he’ll be able to turn the tables on his tormentors, who he can only hope have not already killed his wife.
Jeff does manage to gain the upper hand at certain moments, but Mostow and co-writer Sam Montgomery neatly manage to credibly flip-flop the advantage between protagonist and villains several times before it’s all over, as well as to create a plausible m.o. for the baddies. The absolute climax, after several potential ones, perhaps goes a step too far into the realm of silent movie melodrama, but other than that, pic doesn’t miss a beat in squeezing every last ounce of suspense and excitement out of its setup.
Mostow, whose previously helmed the 1991 Showtime thriller “Flight of Black Angel,” demonstrates remarkable resourcefulness for a newcomer. He generates a strong sense of foreboding and dread without resorting to cheap tricks, and the moments of actual conflict, action and violence carry real force, suggesting a genuine command of the medium. With the fine lenser Doug Milsome on camera, the widescreen images possess a clean, bold look. Editing by Derek Brechin and Kevin Stitt is very sharp, without an ounce of flab.
Although Russell has been associated with heroic roles in the past and is believable in the highly physical scenes, the actor downplays this side of his persona to emphasize the reactions of a normal man to the extreme events the story holds in store. Performance is functional, but very effectively so. Quinlan is offscreen most of the time, but the villains, led by the truly sinister Walsh, are all great.