Breakdown is something of a rarity. It's pure suspense. The plot is thin, the characters are pretty much two-dimensional, and the motivations are always clear from the start. Simply saying that the end justifies the means wouldn't do Breakdown any justice, nor would it give writer/director Jonathan Mostow the credit he deserves, because Mostow makes such perfect use out of these means that adding depth or backstory, or sub-plots would just screw the whole thing up. It's sharp, concise, and always gets right to the point; dialogue is only spoken when necessary, but most of it is just a high-wire act set at top-speed on moving vehicles.
I sat down several months ago expecting a dirt-ball action movie to have on in the background while I surfed the internet, but ended up watching the film for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, until I finally gave up trying to surf and closed my laptop about forty minutes into the film. When I looked it up on imdb earlier today, I saw that I had rated it a four out of ten, based on my memory of seeing it when it came out. Ashamed, I quickly changed it to a ten. It is that good. I turned it on to refresh my memory while I write this, and had to pause it at the 42:20 mark because I hadn't even logged into the site yet. It is completely absorbing.
The plot is this: Kurt Russel and his wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan, are moving out West, and their car breaks down in the middle of the desert. A trucker offers to take Quinlan to a truck stop to call a tow-truck and kidnaps her. The rest of the movie is a frightened Kurt Russel running around frantically through the desert looking for her. It's not concerned with twists and turns, no big shocks or revelations; it's all laid out pretty simply in the first fifteen minutes, and the rest is watching Russel unravel as he becomes more and more desperate, isolated in a world he knows nothing of, amongst truckers and red-necks who don't care about him or his situation, with nowhere and nobody to turn to. It's beautiful.
And when I say that these characters are two-dimensional, I don't mean that it doesn't take any skill to play them. On the contrary, there are some brilliant performances not only from Russel and Quinlan, but also from J.T. Walsh, Jack Noseworthy, and M.C. Gainey as the group of seedy truckers who prey on his initial trust. Nobody in the late 90s played a shady villain like J.T. Walsh, and nobody played the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances like Kurt Russel, who has the right physique and the perfect blend of intelligence and naivetÃ© to pull of the everyman who gets in further and further over his head.
Mostow's direction is near-perfect. It's not showy or overly stylized, and he doesn't hide behind fast cuts when it comes to the action. He's more interested in bleeding a scene or situation dry of its inherent tension. At the 42:20 mark there have really only been a handful of scenes, which are dragged out to achieve their full potential. It's full of scenes that make Russel seem crazy to anyone who could help him, or long shots of him against an empty desert to highlight his isolation. That's the type of pace Mostow sets. It's not a typical action film, with a big set-piece delivered every twenty minutes. It's slow, it takes its time. There is a sequence later in the film that is just Russel climbing from the bottom of a moving truck's trailer to a safer spot in-between the truck itself and the trailer, where he can stand until the truck stops. It lasts for three full minutes, and it's just him struggling and grunting, trying not to be seen by the driver... and holy shit is it tense. And as I believe all great 90s action films should end in a crazy location, so ends Breakdown, but I won't give it away. See it for yourself.
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Written by: Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery
Featuring: Kurt Russell, J. T. Walsh and Kathleen Quinlan
Plot: A man searches for his missing wife after his car breaks down in the middle of the desert.
Feature by Bradley Redder of This Week's Movie. Have a Secretly Awesome suggestion that you'd like to propose? Or have a past or present entry you'd like to argue about? Feel free to e-mail Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.