Double Shot: Breakdown (1997) & Freeway (1996)

When one just isn’t enough! Guaranteed to keep you up all night seeing double by dawn! This week’s double dose: 

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It’s the middle of the summer and people everywhere are hitting the road in an attempt to beat the heat and the mundane of life. And no matter where you head it seems damn near impossible to escape the sweltering presence of the hot, summer sun. So what better time than now to stay inside by the cool comfort of the AC, and take a little vacation with two uniquely different road-trip films that hit cineplexes in the middle of the 1990’s?

Breakdown

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What would you do if the one you loved went missing? How far would you go to get them back? These are the questions posed to every-yuppie Jeff Taylor (Kurt Russell), whose wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) goes missing after their shiny new red Jeep breaks down on the interstate in the middle of the south-west. Sticking out amidst the dusty trucks that intersect the long-stretch of road with their Massachusetts license plate – which already caused an altercation with a boot-licking local (M.C. Gainey) – Jeff and Amy seek the assistance of a trucker named Red Barr (a deceptively warm J.T. Walsh), who ends up giving Amy a ride to the nearest diner to call a tow truck. Or so Jeff thinks.

I won’t expound the motives behind the films tension, as that is precisely what Breakdown is about. Except rather than adhere to the notion raised by Hitchcock that suspense is not in the action, Jonathan Mostow detours into the violence of the American genre that looks to transform its average, well-to-do citizen into a dirt coated hero.

Kurt Russell highlights this the way he highlights Jack Burton’s honest machismo in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China [’86], adhering to the notion that there rests two types of men in one; those who know the safety is on, and those that don’t. Russell dons pressed khakis with a tucked in polo as Jeff, a man who wears his experience on his collar. And as the tension mounts and the situation escalates, he becomes untucked and unpressed – caked in dirt, sweat, and eventually, blood – who must learn how to survive outside the confines of middle-class Massachusetts. Jeff could be played by most American actors, but it would be far less convincing, and nowhere near as genuine. Russell, as he does with Jack, knows how to exude an affable, goofy nature through good looks and muscle (which his wardrobe conceals throughout Breakdowns lean 93 minute run-time), letting audiences believe the events that befall Jeff, without scoffing as to why he isn’t in action-hero mode.

It’s exactly why the tension on display feels so real; because Jeff and his wife Amy feel real. These are everyday people caught in an unthinkable situation that could happen to any one of us. There’s a scene where Jeff, having contacted the police, stands facing a wall of missing persons fliers, dumbfounded by the sheer amount. Each face that looks back is his wifes, and it’s the moment in the film where the suspense of the situation takes the road often traveled into action territory.

That’s not a criticism, but an observation, as the film treats its excitement as taut as the rest of its tightrope act, crackling with an energy that few action films achieve. This is partially due to the fact that not a single moment feels unbelievable, or even exhaustively over the top. Every bit of explosiveness feels as real as the road, or even as real as Jeffs innocuous intrusion on the locals. When he must stow manners in the glove compartment in order to get answers, it never feels like it intrudes on his character. And similarly, the action never feels like it impinges on the suspense of it all. Because while there may be little suspense in action, there’s plenty of both to cover the raw, albeit forgiving road in Breakdown, which demonstrates how both can get along; even when stuck in a car together.

Freeway

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Based on the Grimm fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood – which there’s hardly any subtlety with – Freeway dives below the poverty line to dig up a white-trash retelling that feels as menacing as it does depraved. Directed and written by Matthew Bright, Freeway is that unglued slice of Americana that tourist brochures try to keep hidden, showing a side of dirt road that remains on the opposite side of the tracks.

Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon), a street-smart yet illiterate girl with a boyfriend named Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine), lives a life that’s fit to be exploited on an episode of Cops. Her mother, Ramona (Amanda Plummer), prostitutes on the corner where their motel room is while her step-father, Larry (Michael T. Weiss), smokes crack and attempts to violate her. After Ramona is busted in a sting operation and Larry is arrested on charges of drug and child abuse, Vanessa is remanded to child services, though she quickly out-maneuvers them and high-tails it to her grandma’s place (she even has a red basket full of all her things). Once on the road, she is picked up by Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a wolf in sheep’s clothing who hides under the guise as a psychologist with a stepford wife (Brooke Shields). Just as Bob isn’t really as he seems, neither is Vanessa, who lives engrained with the necessity to survive, which winds up taking Bob by surprise.

To reveal much of anything that transpires would be an error on my part, and equally difficult, as Freeway adheres to so much more than the sum of its fairytale parts. Vanessa, who dons a red leather jacket, is more red riding from the hood, sporting a pistol she received from Chopper (before he was fatally gunned down) and an even deadlier ability to gnaw through worst case scenarios. Reese Witherspoon uses a similar innocence that she first carried with her in The Man in the Moon [’91], though that’s strictly a cover, a sort of defense mechanism in order to get by. She later details her numerous felonies and misdemeanors in a greatest hits of adolescent low points.

And low is where Freeway goes, though never in ways that exceed a sense of immorality or grotesque manner – a place the exceptionally shot and told Killing Joe [’11] too often visits. In examining the acts of Vanessa, her guardians, and Bob Wolverton – which Kiefer illuminates like a bad moon rising – Bright tells how reprehensible and detrimental they are while showing the necessity for them in the land of wolves. The Red Riding Hood of Bright’s grim world is hardened, though hardly deadened to the countless depravities that befall her. She’s sensitive, precocious, yet packing, and it turns the world we see through our screens upside down.

Freeway is less about sick people and their sick acts than it is about the path which led them their. We see how youth are often led astray through their domestic surroundings, where if it wasn’t for the road that leads elsewhere, a daughter could easily become like her mother. Though the tale ultimately turns, not about the path, but about the choice; of right or wrong, moral or immoral. When we see Vanessa hooking on the side of the road in Mexico, it isn’t illustrating sin, but the right she has to choose how to survive. And when we see Freeway basking in its glory, we’re witnessing a film choosing to be as unhinged, unapologetic and uncontrollably funny as it damn well wants to be.

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