For a solid decade a single man reigned supreme over Hollywood as the greatest character actor of his age. He was the king of the That Guys, the actors you knew by sight but whose names were mysteries. He almost exclusively played antagonists, using impeccable elucidation and a reptilian glare like a samurai’s katana. This man was the incomparable J.T. Walsh. We lost Walsh tragically in 1999 of a heart attack, and the cinematic landscape is poorer for it. He made a career out of playing villains, most often cowards on the wrong side of bureaucracy who would torment our heroes from the safety of a desk. Occasionally, he would harness his anti-charisma into something much darker, as he did with the 1997 road movie thriller Breakdown.
Married couple Jeff and Amy (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) have pulled up stakes from Massachusetts and are driving across the country to a new life in San Diego. In the sunbaked Arizona desert, they have the standard first act run-in with locals. Anyone who’s watched any hicksploitation knows that this is a clear recipe for trouble. Sure enough, this minor traffic snafu with a filthy pickup truck quickly turns sinister as the driver of the truck (M.C. Gainey, who has played terrifying rednecks in everything from Justified to Lost to Sideways) decides to give Jeff a piece of his mind at a convenience store. Shaken, Jeff drives away only to have his car break down a few miles along the road.
Luckily, a semi pulls up to help, but anyone familiar with movies from 1987-1999 knows Jeff is in trouble as soon as the driver gets out. It’s J.T. Walsh. Sure, he seems nice and helpful, but it’s J.T. Fucking Walsh, you it’s only a matter of time before those eyes go cold and that officious tone turns ominous. Walsh’s character, Red, gives Amy a ride to a nearby diner to call a tow truck, while Jeff chooses to stay with the car to insure no redneck-related shenanigans occur. About a half hour later, Jeff decides to check the car over, thinking he might have absorbed the necessary knowledge to fix it from the cosmos. While looking under the front bumper, he finds that a couple wires have been unplugged. He plugs them back in and the car starts up just fine. I don’t know anything about cars, so I’m assuming this is totally realistic.
I am a suspicious and hateful soul, and would immediately howl sabotage if something like this happened after an encounter with M.C. Gainey. And frankly, I would never, ever, let my wife into a car with J.T. Walsh. And it’s not just people with initials for names, either. Or character actors whose work I consistently enjoy. I just have a negative opinion of rednecks.
Jeff is far more trusting. He drives down the road to dusty Belle’s Diner and discovers that his wife never showed up, and Jeff, understandably, starts to panic. The locals don’t seem to care too much, and instead send him to the nearest town, thirty miles away, to talk to the sheriff. This gives some of the sense of scope of the lonely highways in this part of the world. On the way, he sees Red’s semi and gets him to pull over. And this is where the movie gets downright eerie. Red claims not to recognize Jeff, and damned if he’s not pretty convincing. The cops take Jeff’s statement, but the city boy is an outsider and he’s acting crazy. Meanwhile, reasonable Red could not be more accommodating and there is absolutely no evidence Amy was ever in the truck. Jeff continues to search, growing increasingly unhinged as the locals slowly morph from merely unhelpful to openly hostile. And then shit gets real.
I don’t want to reveal more about the plot of Breakdown because it really is a gem. It’s the kind of flick you don’t see anymore: a mid-budget thriller with recognizable faces that’s not about fucking teenagers. Relatively obscure and underrated, it is exactly the kind of movie I wanted to talk about when I started Now Fear This, a movie that could use a few more eyes. It stars Kurt Russell, the star of my favorite movie ever, and J.T. Walsh, who I’ve rhapsodized so much about, his estate is about to take a restraining order out on me. It’s the kind of film that should be experienced blind. Not because it will destroy your conception of reality, but because it’s a tense little pulp thriller that benefits from the audience being just as scared and confused as Kurt Russell’s Jeff.
Breakdown feels familiar to fans of ‘70s and ‘80s grindhouse because it is a strange combination of two genres. The first, as I mentioned, is hicksploitation fare like Deliverance or I Spit On Your Grave, a popular subgenre in the ‘70s as the rise of urban centers produced a disconnect with rural areas. In these stories, city dwellers wander into a countryside filled with angry hillbillies and bad things happen. Carol Clover points out that the rednecks are paradoxically hyper-masculine and yet emasculated by the exploitation of their environment. They’re resentful of the city dweller who is portrayed as soft and effeminate. Some act emasculates the city dweller (whether it’s kidnap, rape, murder, or some combination of all three), and he must reclaim his masculinity from these locals. Breakdown does this in Gainey’s first scene, and then more subtly later when Red looks over the engine and makes several remarks at Jeff’s expense, and then of course with Amy’s disappearance.
The film also shares some DNA with road movies like Duel, The Vanishing and The Hitcher. These deal more with psychopathy unconnected with any population subset. Though some of Red’s underlings speak with Southern twangs, Red himself has a somewhat neutral accent. He doesn’t seem to be doing what he does out of class resentment, nor is his environment being exploited. The villains of Breakdown share more in common with Raymond Lemorne or the faceless truck river from Duel. With most hicksploitation, there is the sense that the civilized world has it coming. They created the environment for evil, and though the protagonists might not specifically deserve what happens, there is a sense of chickens coming home to roost. Not so here, where Red and his allies are as soulless as The Hitcher’s John Ryder.
Breakdown works precisely because there is very little sense of rational motive to the crimes. It speaks to the universal fear of random violence, coupled with the anxiety over protecting one’s family. Most importantly, it’s an awesomely tense 90 minutes you won’t regret.