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20 Years Later: ‘Breakdown’ Still Holds Up as a Taut, Solid Thriller

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Breakdown

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” – George Bernard Shaw

Life rarely goes down the roads we’d like, but there’s nothing worse than feeling powerless to stop it from driving off a cliff. For the nightmarishly beset yuppie at the heart of Jonathon Mostow’s Breakdown, the only way to stem the uncontrollable tailspin of loss and humiliation he is subjected to during this horrendous cross-country trip – to once again feel he is in command of his own destiny – is to finally grab the wheel. Thankfully he eventually does, and for a few immensely satisfying violent moments, the world feels right again. Getting to that payoff in a thriller like this, however, means not falling apart like the lives of the protagonists. For cinematic tension to properly release, it must first be carefully built, violation by violation, until neither the characters nor the audience can stand it anymore. With taut pacing and a focused script that doesn’t veer off into needless subplots, Breakdown still stands as a solid example of disciplined genre filmmaking – a reminder that when it comes to suspense, less is often more.

Of course, telling that to someone who is in the process of losing everything might be a hard sell. For Jeff Taylor – broke and in the process of moving from Boston to San Diego in the hopes of a fresh start – his loving wife Amy, some scraps of Polo-clad dignity, and a brand new Jeep Cherokee are pretty much all he has in the world. Mistaken for an easy ransom mark by hillbilly trucker psychopaths who only see an expensive car and an air of upper class (appearances aren’t everything in a thriller, and that goes for heroes too – just ask Roger Thornhill), Jeff is plunged into a horror that sees his tormentors determined to strip him of not only all those meager assets, but whatever sanity and pride he still has left as well.

Kidnapping movies can go down a few different avenues, like playing up the puzzle of the search or exploring the pursuit of revenge, but Breakdown chooses to use the opportunity – and yes, heinous incidents in movies often represent a good chance for personal growth – to tackle the sense of helplessness that life can sometimes elicit when it decides to be a jerk. While its basic premise is often compared to 1988’s The Vanishing, in which a young woman on a road trip in France with her fiancee mysteriously goes missing at a petrol station, that film takes a darker, creepier route, delving deep into torturous grief and the psychology of loss. The pain of not knowing what happened to his girlfriend that fateful day is Rex’s real enemy, and discovering that truth appears to be even more important to him than actually finding his lost lover. The journey he takes, as well as the chilling person behind the answers he seeks, speaks more to how we deal with self-reflection and personal obsession than utter helplessness.

The desperation at the heart of Breakdown does have something to do with Jeff’s concern for the woman he loves, but it’s also born out of a general sense of loss, of being screwed left and right, no matter which way he turns. In the span of a day, the guy loses his wife, his car, and is forced to empty his woefully inadequate bank account. This alone would be enough to break a person’s spirit, but on top of that Jeff is also subjected to further indignities that have him questioning his meager grip on reality and self-worth. His masculinity is threatened when he backs down during a gas station confrontation with the pickup-driving goon that nearly ran him off the road, the strength of his relationship is cast into doubt when local diners at a greasy spoon suggest that his wife may have simply run off with the manly man she took a ride from, his sanity is questioned when law enforcement officials don’t believe his story (aided by the convincing lies of Red, the villainous trucker played with supreme menace by J.T.Walsh), and what little is left of his pride surely vanishes upon seeing his life savings fit neatly into a duffel bag as one dollar bills. Ever feel like you just can’t catch a break?

The original script (by Mostow) contained a prologue that explains more of Jeff’s financial situation (a war zone photographer, he blames himself for a civilian’s death and has recently quit his job), as well as hints at a strain upon his marriage due to his mental state, but these subplots were wisely discarded, distractions that would have merely muddied the tread. Adding an atonement element into the mix would have mitigated the adverse reaction to the many injustices he suffers; in a sense, he would have earned some of this, and therefore the satisfaction of seeing him ultimately overcome would not have been as great. By giving him likable traits and familiar problems, Breakdown is set up to secure sympathy by giving the main character some good ol’ Everyman relatability.

Resigned to daydreams about winning a packaged donuts contest, Jeff isn’t the typical rich man target for this brand of movie punishment, like say, Michael Douglas’ prick gajillionaire in The Game, but that’s part of what makes his descent so engaging. This already struggling guy doesn’t have a cold or malicious philosophy toward life or his fellow humans either; in fact, he’s fairly peaceable, more than willing to placate an aggressor during that mentioned gas station exchange with the asshole tough guy. That doesn’t mean he’s completely reactive, however, and though his initial feeble attempts at taking the initiative often end in frustrating failure, that he tries is endearing. He’s also kind of handy – or willing to at least poke around an engine, even if he’s no mechanic – and he’s playful enough to not be considered a downer. These traits add up to the movie version of someone who probably doesn’t deserve the harsh penalty to come, but the universe has never really cared about who it’s inflicting misery unto, something that audiences almost everywhere can empathize with. This lack of “fairness” is part of the reason why Breakdown works so well. Clearly no Alpha male, Jeff is easy to root for against both cruel fate and the hyenas it has surrounded him with.

Kurt Russell’s share of credit in achieving this affinity cannot be understated. Often known for the awesome studs he has portrayed in classics like Escape From New YorkThe Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China, here he channels a vulnerability that perfectly encapsulates a modern man who wants to be the male protector, yet having resided so long in a world where macho-ness is mostly unneeded, is unprepared to do so – at first. Russell also excels at boiling, and his eventual transformation into a Dirty Harry avenger (albeit still with a bit of believable stumbling) who tortures his torturers with brakes that stop on a dime, performs action stunts on speeding semis, and expresses all the rage that’s been building up inside both him and us as he kicks Red in the face hits all the right notes. It’s an efficient, affecting turn, reflecting the sensibility of Breakdown as a whole.

Director Jonathon Mostow (U-571Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) never wastes a moment in this lean, 93-minute trip, never milking either the mystery or the action for more than it’s worth. Each scene serves its purpose, building to the next. Without the earlier embarrassing moments in the diner, the anger and exasperation of the fruitless encounter with Red and the sheriff wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Without the conversation outside the bank, there would be less paranoia mounting within. Without some fleeting moments between a monstrous father and his unknowing son, a dining room standoff wouldn’t have nearly the tense complexity. Cinematographer Douglas Milsome uses the space afforded by the vast southwestern setting to create engaging compositions that emphasize his characters’ places in the universe, and tight editing by Derek Brechin and Kevin Stitt reinforces Mostow’s strong staging efforts. Though not Hitchcockian in either deftness or artistry, not being a masterpiece is nothing to be ashamed of; Breakdown is solid genre work with a high level of precise craftsmanship all the way through to the sweet end.

Though things get a tad ridiculous in those waning minutes, with a desperate vehicle chase in which shots are fired, beater cars flip like they’re auditioning for the next Dukes of Hazzard, and a tanker jackknifes simply because it looks cool, some oomph was needed for punctuation. The whole mess culminates when the man who has committed countless terrors with his truck is flattened beneath it, delivering bloodthirsty closure in the process. It’s been argued by Roger Ebert that the ending is out of place and character for this sort of movie, where the protagonists must maintain a certain level of civility to not cross over into antihero territory, but what’s important here is who commits the act. While Jeff has already essentially regained some measure of influence over his life again by achieving the rescue and besting the outside forces attempting to exert themselves upon him, Kathleen Quinlan’s Amy has also been helpless the entire film, relegated to near MacGuffin-status while locked away unseen, unable to even participate in the struggle for her life. She deserves her own moment to regain control, to achieve some peace – how could she otherwise ever be happy? One pull of a lever shifts the balance back, a decision that allows Amy to take ownership over her existence once again.

The conclusion functions as a nice bow on a neatly-wrapped movie package; not flashy, but with a single-minded focus on delivering a sharp, entertaining ride that demonstrates how to exercise skilled control over the story of people who have lost their own. By avoiding any aimless drifting, Breakdown continues to steer audiences toward genre movie heaven.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    May 16, 2017 at 12:26 am

    So I LOVE this movie. I went to the drive in back in 1997, It was one of the few times I had been to a drive-in and they had a double bill of this and I believe Jurassic Park 2. I had never heard of this movie and it blew me away. It should have been the main event, not Jurassic Park 2. Either way, it was one of the best movie outings of my life. I loved discovering these gems without knowing anything about the movie ahead of time. You can”t get that experience anymore because of the internet.

    • Patrick

      May 16, 2017 at 3:07 pm

      Oh man, I feel sorry for Jurassic Park 2 having to go after this… I went and saw it in theaters alone because none of my friends had heard of it and didn’t care. I’m pretty sure Siskel and Ebert was how I found out about it, but I totally agree that those discoveries used to be amazing, and are much harder to find now.

      • Ricky D

        May 17, 2017 at 10:42 am

        Yeah I remember just hating Jurassic Park 2. Imagine seeing this amazing movie you’ve never heard of that just blows you away and right after you are watching dinosaurs swimming to NYC. I’ve never bothered to watch JP2 ever again. I remember hating everything about it.

        • Patrick

          May 17, 2017 at 2:36 pm

          I’ve tried re-watching it, but it really isn’t good at all. Too bad. I actually enjoyed the novel.

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

Rojo vacation

After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

Rojo locker room

The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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