The scant exposition bestowed by Jonathan Mostow's ruthless all-action action-thriller Breakdown comes in a brief dialogue scene between hero Jeffrey Taylor (Kurt Russell) and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) in the first ten minutes. Quasi-bourgie travelers from Beantown on a pilgrimage to start a new life out west, the couple offhandedly reveals the relative financial hole they're in, perhaps partly created by the shining red Jeep they're using to power through an imposing southwestern America. While eagerly escaping this void of dust, rock, and cement, Jeff's new engine is tripped by a mysterious gas station passerby, which ultimately causes the titular breakdown and traps him and his wife in the squalid emptiness they're seeking to outrun. Beautifully economical, this setup establishes everything the viewer needs to know in order to go along with the escalating paranoia of the subsequent plot: these are clearly privileged white people in a bind navigating an unknown desert where threat is perceived from every possible direction.
When a dubiously benevolent trucker arrives as if by divine intervention and offers to take Amy to a nearby diner to call for automotive assistance, Jeff's frightened interiority starts to be reflected by an actively malicious environment. He get his car back in order shortly after he sacrifices Amy to this perfectly reasonable sign of relief, but when he tracks down the diner to retrieve his wife she's not there. No one is aware of her ever setting foot on the premises, nor are they remotely concerned about her disappearance. On the surface, the premise is reminiscent of that which kicks off The Vanishing (1988), a darkly existential gut punch from French director George Sluizer that was inexplicably remade with American stars and for "American" audiences by Sluizer himself five years later. But where Sluizer's admirably hopeless original struck a deeply nihilistic tone, revealing the world as essentially cruel and its mysteries unsolvable, Mostow's film is pitched at a more absurd register, the machinations of its wronged-man plot indistinguishably perched between actual peril and the workings of a delusional imagination. It's significant that the villain here is not a single warped mind but rather the entire town, a mustachioed and mob-like mass seemingly conspiring to drain Jeff of his remaining finances and brutalize his life partner.
In exchange for the $90,000 Jeff purports to have left in his bank account, the exceptionally nasty men (the amoral head honcho of which is played with chilling solemnity by J.T. Walsh) who kidnap Amy offer the empty promise of her survival. That the assumed financial reward is so measly in the larger scope of movie theft ($90,000 is hardly the sort of amount that would completely rebuild the dust-caked town) only augments the sense that Jeff's victimhood is subjective rather than circumstantial, the pervasive evil of the world around him a manifestation of his anxieties more than a tangible force. At the same time, the achievement of the film is in making those anxieties ferociously tangible. Mostow's project is not to ridicule or punish Jeff for his endangerment, but rather to cling intimately to his perspective as he pursues the rehabilitation of order in his now lopsided universe—as such, Breakdown is one of Hollywood's most skillful exercises in empathetic engagement. Great portions of the film, particularly in the second act when Jeff's confusion is at its peak, are shot at wide angles and in deep focus, visualizing the floating fear of 360 degree threat. By the film's third act, the alignment of the audience with Jeff is absolute; we share his nervous perspective in voyeuristic telephoto shots, culminating in a garage peeping scene in which the camera is literally placed on a different level than the villains, with Jeff observing their transgressions from a loft above.
The resolution to this inner battle writ large is of the demon-conquering variety in which Hollywood cinema is bound to trade (in this case, The Vanishing's nihilism would spoil the very ideology of self-growth upon which the narrative machine is founded). But give credit to Mostow for rendering this nightmare of personal collapse, however temporary, with such vivid, scraping intensity. The film's most acute lasting impression is of sparks flying and sweaty faces coiled in nerve-popping adrenaline. Furthermore, Spielberg's Duel (1971) is an apparent precedent, but rarely since Two Lane Blacktop (also 1971) have automobiles had such a decidedly weighty presence, here made deadly through their constant high-speed entangling. It's also worth applauding the way in which the audience is finally left hanging (almost literally) after a near-death experience at the precipice of a bridge. Mostow's bow-tying is curt and efficient, hardly cathartic: Jeff and Amy's final embrace is only dwelled upon for seconds before the camera lurches upward to survey the wreckage beneath, the swells of a minor-key orchestra reaching their crescendo. Miles of road still lie ahead.