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Breakdown (1997)

In the early seventies, movies always depicted the American backwoods as a savage place where unwary city slickers were unreasonably tormented by monstrous good ole boys. Breakdown is a return to the days of Macon County Line, Race With the Devil and Jackson County Jail: every roadside stop is full of unhelpful, resentful, ignorant rednecks - when Jeff tells the proprietor of Belle's Diner that his disappeared wife is wearing a Benetton sweater, the sweaty lowbrow has no idea what he means and mishears the brand name as 'button-on' - and smiling, brutal crooks in cowboy hats live off goods stolen from passing city folks as if the tribute were only fair. In its assembly of baddies, the film is exemplary: Red, the folksy mastermind, dotes on his wife and small son even as he treats outsiders as less than human; Billy, an apparent retard, displays a nasty eloquence when revealing to Jeff that he has fooled him; Earl has a black cowboy hat and Easy Rider moustache to go with his courtly air of menace; and Al, the tagalong the regulation blocky goon, gets in the way and listens to explanations.

It is tempting to see this return to the paranoid formulae of an earlier decade as symptomatic of a resurgence of the city-country conflicts that marked the era of protest, and a swing away from the more sympathetic depictions of troubled rural folk in such '80s 'struggling farmer' pictures as Country and Places in the Heart. After all, even the seminal Thelma and Louise, which dwells at length on the threat of the roadside, was crucially about women from the sticks who happened to wake up to the everyday nastiness all around. However, it seems more likely that director-writer Jonathan Mostow (hitherto the direct-to-video toiler of Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers and Flight of the Black Eagle) merely realised a workable suspense pattern had fallen through overfamilarity into disuse and that it could now profitably be revived for the nineties without even a superficial update.

Like Duel, Deliverance or even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Breakdown sets up its everyman heroes as city folks from Back East and makes much of their feelings of helplessness at not knowing how extensive Red's gang is. At the diner, in the bank and a truck stop, Jeff constantly eyes every rural extra, unsure whether they are in the racket or not. Mostow relishes the lonely roads and the desert's sinister splendours as much as he does the all-action chases and fights, establishing the menace with enough creepy touches to ground the pay-off set-pieces in something like reality. The film's subtlest stroke is that the misunderstanding works both ways: because they are from Massachusetts and have a snazzy new jeep, Red assumes the Taylors are wealthy 'doughnut kings', whereas they are actually on the point of going into debt.

The moral of the plot (also cf: Duel, Deliverance, Motel Hell) might well be a warning to redneck villains to stay away from city softies who might well be less easy pickings than they seem. Faced with the loss of his wife, Kurt Russell's Jeff Taylor doesn't retreat into the existential dilemma of the hero of The Vanishing but transforms from fish-out-of-water amiable clod into a genuine action hero, daringly driving into a river to elude pursuit, turning the hand-over of ransom to his advantage by recognising that Earl will be so intent on gloating as to overlook the purloined letter-opener, crawling (in a textbook suspense scene) along the underside of Red's speeding truck to find a safe perch, and finally going mano a mano with the always reliably fiendish J.T. Walsh in the creaking hulk of a lorry cab that is hanging precariously off the edge of a bridge. The callous punchline, as Kathleen Quinlan squashes her tormentor, might not exactly be on a level with the devastating descents into bestiality that afflicted the avengers of Straw Dogs or The Last House on the Left, but still draws a slightly disturbing cheer from a satisfied audience.

First Published In: Sight and Sound (issue unknown)

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