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Film / Breakdown

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Breakdown is a 1997 thriller written and directed by Jonathan Mostow, starring Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan.

Jeff Taylor (Russell) and his wife Amy (Quinlan) are driving cross-country from Boston to San Diego. The first sign of trouble is a barely-avoided collision with a truck, followed by meeting its driver, Earl (MC Gainey), at the gas station. Not long after leaving the station, their vehicle breaks down. A trucker named Warren "Red" Barr (J. T. Walsh) stops by and offers to take Amy to a nearby diner, from where she can hopefully call for help. Jeff soon finds out that their vehicle had a very specific problem: disconnected wires. And when he gets to the diner, Amy is nowhere to be seen. The rest of the movie follows Jeff as he struggles to find his wife.

This film provides examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Jeff.
  • The Alleged Car: One Chase Scene has Jeff and Amy trying to escape the gang members in an old, rusty utility pickup truck. It doesn't take the bad guys long to run them down.
  • Bowdlerise: As released in Germany, the scene where Red's truck falls on him and finishes him off was trimmed to remove the bit where Amy releases the gears, thus making it look like the truck fell on him accidentally as opposed to Amy summarily executing him.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Red when he first appears as the "friendly trucker".
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Earl dies.
  • Bound and Gagged: Amy, when she is unloaded at "The Barn."
  • Car Meets House: While pursuing Jeff and Amy at one point, Red crashes his 18-wheeler straight through the middle of a trailer home.
  • Chain Pain: Used as an Improvised Weapon towards the end of the film by Red.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The doughnut package.
  • Conveniently Placed Sharp Thing: Enforced. Jeff steals a letter opener from the bank, probably to use as a weapon, but it comes in handy when he is tied up. Then he uses it as a weapon.
  • Cool Car: Jeff's brand new car. It also makes him look like a wealthy target to the kidnappers.
  • Damsel in Distress: Amy for most of the film.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Red has a wife and son at home, neither of whom know anything about his leisure-time activities.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: When Jeff manages to score a hit on Billy's car, it flips over, and promptly explodes.
  • Evil Gloating: Earl, after he has taken Jeff's money, and has him tied up in his car. His gloating lets Jeff know why they were targeted, and that the kidnappers intend to kill them anyway.
  • Evil Plan: Red and his crew target tourists with broken-down cars, kidnap them by offering them a ride, then rob and kill them. It's implied they even cause the breakdowns to begin with, as Earl gloats to Jeff that sabotaging his car was easy.
  • Gaslighting: The villains have this down to an artform, first with "Red" claiming to have never previously met Jeff or Amy when Jeff tries to get answers as to what happened to her, and then by Billy who tells him that the police are in on her disappearance, discouraging Jeff from going to them for help.
  • Guile Hero: Amy, who avoids getting killed by telling the kidnappers Jeff has a lot of money. Jeff also manages to keep up the charade long enough to locate Amy.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: Because the villains' plan involves doing everything they can both to keep the authorities from being clued in and make Jeff paranoid to trust anyone, the first half of the movie plays out like a psychological thriller, with Jeff not even sure if he can trust his own mind since everyone he meets either has no idea what's going on or outright claims they never met him and his wife/don't even know she exists. However, once the villains move beyond kidnapping into the ransom phase and reveal their true colors, this Gaslighting is quickly dispensed with in favor of regular suspense and action.
  • Hate Sink: Red Barr or "Warren" as his real name is obviously meant to be despised as he turns out to be a cruel and sociopathic serial killer who is responsible for kidnapping Amy. He fulfills his schemes by lying to Jeff, making him paranoid and distraught, and refusing to listen to reason. The film itself went out of the way to let the audience know how much Jeff hates that guy. Also, Earl, one of Red's thugs, is almost assuredly this as well for the film. Not only does he set the whole plot in motion by sabotaging Jeff and Amy's car, but he proceeds to be one of biggest Jerkasses in cinematic history. From routinely insulting Jeff to gloating about how he's going to kill Jeff and his wife, there's never a moment where he comes off as an even slightly likable person. It makes it all the more satisfying when Jeff smashes his face open with the butt of his own pistol, forcefully interrogates him by duct-taping his neck around his headrest and slamming the brakes, and then the sheriff finally shoots him dead.
  • Hates Rich People: Earl justifies the crimes his gang commits (including kidnapping and murder) by claiming Jeff and Amy had it coming for being "rich assholes looking for trouble."
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Red is crushed by his own truck. Arranged by Amy, the moment her hands were free.
    • Earlier, Red tried to use a length of chain as a weapon to gain an edge on Jeff. This ultimately backfires on him, when Jeff grabs the chain and pulls him down.
  • Hypocrite: Earl claims that Jeff was looking for trouble, which was one of the reasons that Amy was kidnapped. Thing is, Jeff was nothing but polite to Earl, while Earl nearly ran him off the road and harassed him at the gas station. If anything, Earl was the one looking for trouble.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: To get Earl to tell him where Amy is, Jeff ties Earl's neck to the headrest of the passenger seat of a car with duct tape, then repeatedly accelerates the car and slams on the brakes.
  • Jerkass: Earl, in spades. Pretty much every chance he has to Kick the Dog, he takes. From hassling Jeff at the gas station to his gloating about the gang's Evil Plan, he has to be one of the most unpleasant characters ever put on cinema.
  • Karmic Death:
    • Earl says Jeff is one of the stupidest people he's ever met, only to get shot in the head by a down-but-not-out cop he'd shot and foolishly turned his back on.
    • Red dies when his truck, his main tool for his kidnappings, is dropped on him by Amy, his latest kidnapping victim.
  • Lethal Letter Opener: Jeff steals a letter opener to saw through his ropes and then use as a weapon.
  • Never My Fault: Earl nearly runs Jeff of the road when he randomly drives in front of him in his truck. Earl somehow blames Jeff for this.
  • Nerves of Steel: Red Barr. He never cracks. Ever. Not when Jeff holds his family at gunpoint, not when he is completely at Jeff's mercy.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Billy feigns mental impairment the first time Jeff meets him.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • In Red's kitchen, Jeff thinks he's got Red, Billy, and Al right where he wants them...then Red's son comes in pointing a rifle at him.
    • Earl, when he realizes the stacks of money are simply 1-dollar bills sandwiched by two 100-dollar bills.
    • If one looks closely, one can see Earl's brief look of horror as Sheriff Boyd shoots him in the head.
    • Jeff gets a pretty epic one when he notices the truck he and Red are fighting in is about to fall through the railing of a bridge.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Played with. Earl shoots a cop in the shoulder, only for that cop to still be able to shoot Earl in the head. However, the wound is still shown to be incredibly painful and the cop has trouble simply standing up.
  • Outside Ride: Jeff finds his way to Red's farm by hitching a ride on the outside of Red's 18-wheeler.
  • Pistol-Whipping: The moment Jeff gains control of Earl's Beretta, he goes to town on the bastard's face as hard and as many times as it takes for him to keep the upper hand:
    Earl: "Fuck you!"
    Jeff: "Nah, fuck YOU!" *swings pistol again*
    Earl's Nose: *KRTCH!*
  • Plot-Driven Breakdown: Averted. Jeff and Amy's car breaking down sets the plot in motion, but we find out later that it was actually sabotaged.
  • Protected by a Child: When Jeff holds Red at gunpoint, Red's young son, Deke, grabs a loaded rifle and tries to protect his parents.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Earl gives one to Jeff, telling him all the ways he made himself stand out as an easy mark for the gang.
    "You've gotta be the dumbest motherfucker yet. Think we just picked you out of the clear blue? Shiny new car, Massachusetts plates...probably be a week before anybody misses you. Shoulda got that bumper sticker that goes with that car: 'Rich Assholes Looking for Trouble.' Sure wish I'd been there to see the look on your face when your car seized up on you. Maybe next time you'll learn...don't leave your hood open when you go in the store."
    • It's actually an interesting subversion, in that Earl is completely wrong about Jeff and Amy being "rich assholes looking for trouble." They're actually middle-class people who are not looking for trouble; Earl is just a serious hypocrite. And his surprise when he learns how wrong he is causes him to drop his guard for a second... and Jeff is able to overpower him.
  • The Savage South: Jeff and Amy are from Massachusetts, and the movie takes place in Arizona. Part of the reason given by the gang for why they were chosen as targets is because they were outsiders, and therefore easier targets.
  • Sinister Southwest: A married couple relocating to California run afoul of kidnappers in the Southwest outback, leading to a sinister cat-and-mouse game between them and the husband, played out over isolated desert highways, truck stops, and small towns.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Near the end of the movie, Red starts to threaten Jeff and his wife (the latter having just been rescued from the chest freezer in which the villains left her to suffocate), only to be silenced nine words in when a severely stressed-out Jeff screams "You FUCK!!!" and kicks him in the face.
  • Small-Town Tyrant: Subverted. At first Jeff thinks the local police and sheriff are like this through a combination of their quite justified skepticism of his story and only going through the motions in helping him, and further aided by Jeff's paranoia (which was in fact counted on and planted by the villains). But it turns out they really have nothing to do with the plot, and as soon as one of the cops becomes aware there really is something strange going on, he takes action to investigate. Unfortunately, this leads to him getting shot by Earl, so that Jeff is on his own again.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: By the time Jeff finds out that the "friendly" trucker and the "helpful" youth with the supposed mental disability are both in league with the bad-tempered stranger and all three have it in for him and Amy, he's gotten so paranoid that he can't bring himself to trust anybody who lives in or around the town, not knowing who else might be in on the scheme.
    • It gets even worse when Jeff follows the Big Bad home and discovers that he's an ordinary family man with a wife and kid — neither of which has any idea of what he does in his spare time.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to the cop Earl shot? We never see him again afterwards, though the ambulance that Jeff called may have saved him.
    • There's also some Fridge Horror concerning whatever happened to Red's wife and his son after they were freed. Not only is their family patriarch dead, but they also just discovered that he was a Serial Killer; that's gotta be hard to take.