The pursuit of a serial killer drives “Switchback,” a standard thriller with a couple of novel touches. Though the geography is unusual, the story terrain is familiar in this cat-and-mouse tale. Commercial prospects are OK, with fair theatrical returns likely and decent pay cable and cassette movement to follow.
The directing debut of “Die Hard” co-scribe Jeb Stuart indicates a solid command of the medium but suffers from a narrative as cagey and indirect as the pic’s protagonists. Though it holds out the promise of unusual plot twists, the script invariably opts for the most obvious resolution. Result is a series of disappointing anticlimaxes that slow down the film when it ought to be shifting into high gear.
“Switchback” opens with two violent murders in different areas of the country that take place months apart. Local authorities appear to be on the wrong track, but audiences immediately understand the events are connected.
In Amarillo, Texas, the killing couldn’t happen at a worse time. Longtime peacekeeper Sheriff Buck Olmstead (R. Lee Ermey) is up for re-election and facing stiff competition from politically ambitious police chief Jack McGinnis (William Fichtner), who’s using the grisly murder as a campaign chip. But Olmstead gets an edge when FBI agent Frank LaCrosse (Dennis Quaid) turns up at the crime scene with a psychological profile of the killer and a keen sense of his m.o. and likely next steps.
Meanwhile, somewhere in New Mexico, college student Lane Dixon (Jared Leto) is hitchhiking west. He gets a ride from former rail worker Bob Goodall (Danny Glover), who befriends the young man and rescues him from certain death at a bar populated by surly miners. The aside isn’t casual.
The script throws a few red herrings along the trail, including a brief flirtation with the idea that Frank might not be an FBI man, but rather the killer he appears to know too well. But his strange behavior stems from having been removed from the case when the purported killer kidnapped his son — the opening sequence of the film. The abductor, who turned up dead in a ditch, was tagged the serial felon and the case was closed. But the new incidents have convinced Frank that the real culprit is still loose and that his son is alive.
So is it the gregarious and physically imposing railway vet Bob or the mysterious and knowledgeable ex-medical student Lane? For the first half of the picture it’s anyone’s guess. And that coyness does quite the opposite of propelling the action. The politics of small-town justice and the extremely odd manner of the rogue FBI op are colorful, time-consuming and not terribly compelling.
When the chase begins in earnest, at least the pace of the film quickens. Still, with the exception of snowbound Colorado locations, the plot twists are much too predictable.
The performances are generally functional and on the nose. Quaid is earnest, obsessed and humorless in his quest, save for a flash of humanity in the closing moments. Glover is big and obvious and never quite convinces as someone with an insidious secret life, and Ermey is the ever-reliable Southern lawman with good horse sense about everything and anything.
Leto is about the only performer who comes off in sync with the layers of the script. He gets across his character’s youthful zeal as well as the sense of someone troubled by a blot on his past.
Tech credits are solid, and the physical demands of a slow chase through snow are well observed. But Stuart is guilty of recognizing a novel set piece and running with it at the risk of losing focus, character credibility and the audience’s goodwill and patience.