The American West has always been our final frontier — an untamed swath of continent big enough for those who don’t socialize well to find a suitable address and romantic enough to let a million moviemakers’ imaginations bloom. But the kind of behavioral wildness inspired by all that brutal vastness has changed with the times. Where Butch Cassidy types once hid in the hills and made it a point of honor not to kill the gentry they robbed, now angry militia groups and more psychopathic stick-em-up types have moved into the neighborhood, threatening our highly prized sense of neighborliness. Today’s mythic West is still a place to drive fast and free. But it’s also an anxiety-provoking territory that can turn creepily alien with just one bad close encounter — you wouldn’t want to get stranded there.
Breakdown, a powerfully nerve-racking contemporary thriller set in the unspecific southwest U.S. of A., expertly plays on all this sociology. And it does so with such throwaway style and control that anyone not inclined to ponder the current state of our national character can just sit back and enjoy the ride. Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), lustrous, effete Easterners driving cross-country in their shiny red Jeep to Jeff’s new job in San Diego, stall out on a desolate highway. Their cell phone doesn’t work (a menacing-looking hillbilly at the last gas station warned Jeff that everyone in those parts should carry a CB radio). They’re stuck and alone.
So when a placid trucker (J.T. Walsh from Nixon, in menacing-looking sunglasses and a gimmie cap) looms up, the couple flag him down. Amy takes the driver up on his offer to drop her off at a diner down the road to phone for help, while Jeff stays behind with the car and their baby-boomer valuables. She leaves. Jeff, meanwhile, discovers the cause of the problem (a menacing-looking loose cable), fixes it, and takes off after his wife. But no one at the diner has seen her, or any dang truck. Foul play, it appears, is at work.
Echoes of thrillers past, including The Vanishing (girlfriend disappears without a trace!), Steven Spielberg’s Duel (menacing big rig seen through rearview mirror!), and even the recent The Trigger Effect (technological failure = anarchy!) are everywhere in the air here. But young director-cowriter Jonathan Mostow (Showtime’s Flight of Black Angel), working with top-notch cinematographer Doug Milsome (Lonesome Dove) under the old- pro eye of producer Dino De Laurentiis, has found his own effective niche and pace. Breakdown feels at first so casual, so comfortable with its own small expectations (a good but unglamorous cast, a sturdy but unspectacular plot), that the authentic feelings of suspense are a surprise; by the time Jeff’s pursuit of Amy reaches its all-stops-out climax, you’re invigorated by something fresh.
I suspect, by the way, that Kurt Russell himself didn’t know what he had lucked into when he took this project, surely one of the more interesting sleepers in a notably dull spring movie season. But his strong performance only confirms my theory that the actor — previously dressed in Escape From New York/L.A. leather and Tombstone Wyatt Earp gear — will always look most at home in the fashions and characters of the threatened middle class (think Unlawful Entry or Tequila Sunrise). With his soft, pampered features and penchant for wire-rimmed glasses, Russell is an actor meant to play men of resources in tight spots. In Breakdown, he wears a pastel-colored Polo shirt, the ultimate in spinelesswear. Pristine at the start of his journey and a jarring sight against the intense Southwestern horizon, he’s filthy and tattered at the terrible end. But, paradoxically, at that final moment, having found the strength to get up and do what needs to be done, he finally blends into the landscape. He becomes a quintessential late-20th-century man, cinema-style: shaken, sad, triumphant, exhausted, with an untrustworthy cell phone but a will to survive. A-