Film Retrospect - Summer of '97: Breakdown
by Barry Wurst
June 17, 2007
About four years ago, I lost my wife. You read that right - I couldn't find her. At all. We were engaged at the time and had set a date for the movies (Secret Window was the film we chose to see together that night, I recall). We had set up a place to meet after work, only at 5:00, she didn't show. Neither of us had cell phones at the time, but I had a pocket full of quarters, so I called her at work - "she already left", someone told me. I called a few of her friends and they didn't know where she was either. I drove over to her parent's house - they hadn't seen her and thought she was with me. I smiled and politely thanked them, masking my growing feelings of unease. I drove back to the place we were designated to meet... not there. I began to wonder if she ran an errand or simply forgot. About 30 minutes after we were supposed to hook up, she was still a no-show (this was highly unlike her) and some truly paranoid musings began to take hold of me. I wondered if she was hurt, or trapped somewhere or, most likely, kidnapped.
My wife is nobody's fool and she'd give any kidnapper one hell of a fight, but this didn't make me any less antic. I became a mess - I felt hopeless, unable to do anything as... what? As she was being driven across town while tied up in someone's trunk?! I had no idea what happened to her and I was somewhere between tears and delusional frenzy. I'd never had a panic attack before, but now I knew what they felt like. I was thinking straight, or cohesively - I was one degree away from terror-stricken bonkers. Needless to say, she showed up an hour later and, to my embarrassment, I forgot that she had a doctor's appointment (in my defense, she told me she was going a week ago!) and it was a dumb mistake on my part. Now that we're owners of a cell phone, nothing anything like this has ever happened since... but I have never forgotten that horrible, naked feeling that someone I loved was gone and I was helpless to do anything.
Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown knows that feeling all too well and exploits it to the fullest effect. Many have pointed out that the film is essentially a combination of Steven Spielberg's Duel and George Sluzier's The Vanishing; they're both excellent films, but only the latter comes closest to exploring how afraid one can get that their paranoid fantasy could be true. I love both of those films (Duel is still one of Spielberg's finest and the original The Vanishing is terrifying) but I think Breakdown may edge them out and for one big reason - Kurt Russell. Longtime readers of this site know that I think he's a wonderful, forever underrated American actor (go read my "Ode to Kurt Russell"), but his performance in Breakdown is one of his career milestones. The film is a muscular action thriller, to be sure, but Russell (playing a husband in search of his missing wife in the middle of a Nowheresville) single-handedly sells the emotional angle, putting the audience in his corner the whole way and making the whole film uncomfortably real. Another big asset - the late, great J.T. Walsh, a gifted character actor who played his share of villains before, but never one this scary and despicable. Some actors are good at playing "heavies"; you walk away and say "John Travolta was a good bad guy in that!" Here, you completely hate Walsh's guts, a testament to how skillfully he pulls off the role.
This was one of those few pre-summer movies that opened on May 2nd but played all the way through August! Word of mouth was very strong with this one and it played all through the summer season, never topping $50 million but barely dropping in weekly box office gross. Most importantly, the film is terrific, exciting, tremendously suspenseful and rather frightening. The villains make you angry, not only at how rotten they are, but how efficiently they pull off their scam on Russell. When you see just what they did to his wife, the image will haunt you. You want Russell to take revenge, but, because he's playing a you-are-there everyman, and not Snake Plissken, you fear for him, as he is doing as well as anyone in the audience would. This is the greatest strength of the movie: Russell's performance is to this movie what Harrison Ford's was for The Fugitive, namely the believable drive and heart of the picture.
Mostow went on to make the effective (if unmemorable) U-571, but it was his helming of Breakdown that made me nod with approval when news hit he was directing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. That movie, like Breakdown, has a brain and a lot of heart, on top of some large-scale thrills. Most summer movies have go-for-broke, budget busting action sequences, but few go for the throat and get under your skin the way Breakdown does.