Breakdown (1997)

Repeat | Jul 29, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

I yawned through the last contemporary thriller, “Spectre,” that I saw at a theater. Sure, James Bond movies have always had fantastical elements, so you happily went along for the ride and set logic aside for the duration. But CGI ushered in an era of over-the-topness that’s, frankly, boring me. “Spectre” was just another example of this trend.

That’s why I’m focusing on “Breakdown” here. When I say classic, I’m not using that adjective to describe its rank in the cinematic canon. “Breakdown” is like the white dress shirt as a fashion classic, an enduring staple so to speak. Nothing fancy, but it just works.

When Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) hitches a ride on the underbelly of Red Barr’s 18-wheeler (Barr played with understated menace by the terrific J.T. Walsh), it’s conceivable that could occur. When Taylor loses the gun and skins his heels on the fast-moving pavement below, peril is established. Stanley Kubrick put Slim Pickens on a bomb, but that was a joke, folks. Bigger and faster ain’t necessarily better.

“Breakdown” is obviously inspired by Spielberg’s TV movie, “Duel.” Other influences were probably “Race with the Devil” and other films that explored the spooky prospects when city folk get out of their natural habitat and mix with their kissin’ cousins in the country.

One of my favorite moments in the film involves Taylor’s first encounter with Billy (Jack Noseworthy). He appears to be a slow-witted local who is going to help Taylor find his wife. However, all those people in the hinterlands probably saw “Deliverance,” too. Billy knows the part to play to snare Taylor. And then he tops it off by implying that maybe the whole community is rotten to the core. This feeds Taylor’s growing paranoia and keeps him a one-man gang in his quest to find his wife.

I loved these small-scale roadside thrillers, but they’re in short supply these days, supplanted by the aforementioned big-budget extravaganzas featuring heroes jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper in exotic foreign locales. The “Breakdown” plot is straightforward and spare but effective. It’s not cluttered up with subplots, red herrings, twists and turns. Instead it relies on Taylor’s growing dread that he and his wife have happened upon a dangerous conspiracy of local yokels.

Russell plays Taylor as definitely a man out of his element, running around in his pastel polo shirt and tan chinos. A moment of levity in an otherwise tense film is when Taylor describes his wife as wearing a Benetton sweater, which the owner of the local greasy spoon mispronounces as “button up.” Taylor allows a smug grin upon hearing this gaffe, reinforcing his view that the local population is pretty much an unsophisticated, backwards lot. It’s when he loses this stereotype and takes his adversaries seriously that allows him to find his wife and even the score.

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