Breakdown (1997 with Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh)

USA / 1997

Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writers: Jonathan Mostow, Sam Montgomery

Cast: Kurt Russell, J.T. Walsh, Kathleen Quinlan, M.C. Galney, Jack Noseworthy

Like that other unsettling tale of roadside abduction, The Vanishing, Mostow’s thriller passed audiences by but, while it never attains the heights of its Dutch counterpart, Breakdown is an accomplished, compelling tale rehabilitating both director and cast. En route to San Diego and a new life, Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) encounter reckless driver Earl (M.C. Galney), who threatens them before speeding away.

When their Jeep breaks down, passing trucker Red Barr (J.T. Walsh) offers to drive Amy to a nearby diner to call for assistance. Jeff repairs the vehicle and arrives at the restaurant only to be told they have never seen his wife. Fearing her kidnap, Jeff enlists a local sheriff to arrest Red, but he is unable to find any evidence of her existence, let alone disappearance. However, local boy Billy (Jack Noseworthy) finds Jeff and tells him the police are implicated in the kidnap, and he must track down Earl to solve the crime. Taylor agrees, unaware that Billy, Earl and Red work together to hijack, rob and murder tourists, and the Taylors are their latest victims…

Inspired by Spielberg’s Duel, Mostow’s picture mixes essence of Hitchcock with the spirit of Hollywood past. In the leading role, Russell is impressive, conveying emotions and desperation far beyond the remit of the familiar big screen musclemen. But the film belongs to J.T. Walsh, one of the best-known but least acknowledged of all character actors. Blending menace with mystery, he shoulders much of the tension and offers a textbook lesson in villainy. He died shortly after filming, and was remembered at the 1998 Academy Awards, with Jack Nicholson dedicating his Oscar to the late actor’s memory.

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