As I sit down to write, I’m trying to remember the last movie that actually frightened me. Maybe it was Jurassic Park, ancient critters all agrowl with hunger, or The Fugitive, when shots fired from Tommy Lee Jones’ gun threatened to send me through the ceiling. Wasn’t the suffocating dread of the final scenes of Heavenly Creatures a kind of terror? What about the teasing not-quite-presence of the killer in the first half of Se7en, or the shroud of pessimism draped across that film’s final scenes? And I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted out of a movie theater as badly as I did when that damn baby dropped off the ceiling in Trainspotting.

These are among the movie memories that I cherish most, for a number of reasons. First, there’s the sheer visceral pleasure of a mild adrenaline rush, of a physical reaction to a movie that sets your heart pounding and for a few moments both erases your awareness of this thing called “the movies” and enhances your experience of it. And then there’s the intellectual pleasure of going back and rolling the film all over again in the theater of your mind, trying to remember which scene it was that set you reeling, and perhaps wondering why you reacted that way.

As budgets get bigger, presumably to encompass an audience’s ever-growing hunger for more spectacular special effects, it seems that suspense gets smaller. Who needs suspense when you’ve got a big digital tornado throwing cows and semis across the screen? At least Twister had a sense of humor, and reverence for the awe-inspiring power of what it was trying to recreate. But Independence Day, for instance, scuttled its own showcase scenes by intercutting the jaw-dropping annihilation of Manhattan — which gave me chills in the ID4 trailers — with dumb and dumber fillips, like the flamingly gay Harvey Fierstein on the phone with his mom, or Vivica Fox saving her pooch from a firestorm. Cue laughter and applause, respectively, in the wake of the world’s first feel-good mass murder sequence.

My point? More movies like Breakdown, please. Simply put, this is a terrifying movie that presses the right buttons early on and then capitalizes on your vulnerability. Having seen the “yeah, right” theatrical trailer, which efficiently telegraphs Breakdown‘s set-up, I was ready to give it a miss until all the kind reviews came out. And that’s why I read critics — Breakdown is a veritable object lesson in how to take a tired, unlikely retread of a “high concept” and drive it into white-knuckle territory.

By casting the likable Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor and then, most importantly, sticking with him throughout the course of the narrative, writer/director Jonathan Mostow first invites us into Jeff’s rather mundane world and then strings us along as the walls of safety built up around his life collapse. Jeff and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan), have pulled up roots in Massachusetts to move cross-country. After some small talk and an ominous run-in with a scuzzy redneck, the couple find themselves in trouble when their Jeep breaks down in the Utah desert. As it does in Spielberg’s Duel, evil arrives in the guise of a big truck. This truck has a face, though, and it’s that of an amiable trucker named Red (J.T. Walsh) who agrees to give Amy a lift to the nearest pay phone while Jeff stays with the car.

Now, it’s easy to wonder why in the world Jeff would let his wife ride off with a total stranger, but the challenge of Breakdown is naturally to imagine yourself in that selfsame situation. Far from home and friendless, even the most independent-minded fella has to place his trust somewhere he’d rather not have to place it. And only in the movies would we suspect that a professional trucker would moonlight as a body snatcher. But Amy disappears, never turning up at Belle’s Diner, where she’s supposed to rendezvous with Jeff. The customers have never seen her. And when Jeff chases down Red’s rig, Amy is nowhere to be found. Worse, Red claims that he’s never seen Jeff before in his life.

What ensues is an outlandish but deliberately paced and wholly involving thriller. It takes place in the haunted emptiness of the American West, and is appropriately shot in (non-anamorphic) widescreen. The percussive score by Basil Poledouris sets an edgy mood. Film editing is key to impact, making the most of plot twists and chase scenes. Also critical is Russell’s performance as a fish out of water, removed physically, mentally and emotionally from the reassuring trappings of civilization. The performances are uniformly excellent, as well they must be to fend off undue scrutiny of the story. When Jeff flags down a cop on the highway, he behaves pretty much exactly as we’d expect a cop to behave. Or is the cop in on the conspiracy? For that matter, is the surly owner of Belle’s in cahoots with the unseen villains? Then again, Walsh’s denial of culpability seems so genuine that we may start to wonder whether Jeff is nuts ourselves. Only Quinlan seems unusually flat and uninvolved, and she vanishes early on (an Oscar nominee, and all her agent can get her is this thankless role?).

Of course, this is a Hollywood film circa 1997, so for all its craft, Breakdown still plays nice with the audience. There’s an offhanded remark that suggests some nastiness may befall Amy, but the movie’s free of any rough stuff. Mostly it’s riveting in the manner of a Hitchcock film — high praise, indeed.

Too bad it never plumbs the psychological depths of a Hitchcock film, or makes the same terrible sense, but that’s just not part of the game plan. Instead of character development, we get a single barely-drawn character stuck in a vice grip. Next, we watch for a little more than 90 minutes as the screw is tightened and the gas pedal nears the floorboard. Only in one scene, as Jeff visits a small-town bank, does Breakdown waste its time. Elsewhere, pulse-pounding set pieces follow on the heels of plot twists, transformed characters, and other novel ideas. Some of the best come near the climax, when Jeff turns the tables by invading someone else’s privacy. In particular, the homestead where some of this action is staged reminded me oddly of another scary movie about American opportunists called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Which brings me back to movies that scare me, and how they manage it. In its own way, Breakdown is a direct descendant of the horror movie. Like Texas Chain Saw, Breakdown postulates the existence of a frightening sort of down-home subculture that subsists by feeding on the meat of hapless travelers. It shares with some of the more interesting modern horror films (Bernard Rose’s Candyman, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs) a subtext about class differences, and the resentment that brews in the lower class when the better off breeze through their lives. Money — how much things cost, how much you’ve got in the bank — is an undercurrent. And even more shamelessly than those scary movies, Breakdown taps the timeliest fears of our era, gleefully and perhaps cynically demonstrating what happens when we find out that our $30,000 sport utility vehicle isn’t enough to protect us from all the elements.

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