Breakdown
Jonathan Mastow’s Breakdown is an expertly executed, unpredictable, pulse-pounding thriller. Some call it a B-movie, I call it pure cinema.  —Film Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose)

Here is all you need to now about 1997’s Breakdown: Kurt Russell stars as a typical upwardly-mobile late-30-something who, while on a road trip through the Southwest with his adorable wife, has the misfortune to break down in the middle of nowhere. A friendly stranger offers to give his wife a lift to the nearest service station for help… and then she goes missing. Cue the suspense… and the payback.

Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor in BreakdownIt’s super, super tough to say much more about the film without ruining it. In fact, if you like a good suspense film and have never seen Breakdown, I’d advise you to stop reading right here and see it—without Googling it, without watching the trailer.

Just stop right here.

I mean it.

You didn’t listen, did you?

Since you’ve demonstrated that you’re either brave, foolish, or just too smart for you own good, go ahead and watch the trailer below… and then, if you’re REALLY intent on spoiling the movie for yourself, read through an exchange that Scott Derrickson and I had on Facebook after he posted the above thumbnail review.

Breakdown really is an excellent case study in how NOT to make trailers… if you actually care about the film, and about moviegoers in general.

What happened with the theatrical release of the film also demonstrates that production companies really don’t give a rip about films and moviegoers. What they really care about is, sad to say, giving moviegoers exactly what they expect… because that’s what feeds profits. They know that, for the most part, audiences don’t like to be surprised—unless they are surprised in very predictable ways.

I can just hear the conversation between Mostow and the producers who were cutting the film’s trailer.

Mostow: You can’t put that shot in the trailer. It will give away the identity of the bad guy.

Suits: If we don’t put that shot in there, audiences will be completely lost. Your film is too complicated.

Mostow: You can’t be serious. Moviegoers aren’t that stupid.

Suits: Yes, they are. You give them way too much credit, Jonny-boy. They’re so distracted by their popcorn and coke and the noisy kids down the row that they couldn’t possibly follow your plot. We’re helping you out. Without us, your audience would be lost within twenty minutes.

Mostow: You’re crazy.

Suits: Crazy smart. How does it feel to know your film is going to get out-grossed by Starship Troopers and Anaconda? And Flubber. So, who’s the smart ones here?

Yes, I’ve got an overactive imagination. So anyway… go ahead and watch the trailer if you must. And read on.

GW: Breakdown inspired me to start rating films on the predictability scale. Absolutely nothing surprising happened in the first 70-odd minutes.

SD: Greg, you think nothing surprising happened in the first 70 minutes of Breakdown? Poppycock. Nothing in that movie is predictable. It sets up predictable beats but almost never makes them. It’s specifically what makes the script so great.

GW: Yeah, my friend Dave and I, with whom I saw about 300 movies a year in those days, called every shot in that one until about the 70-minute mark. Half an hour in, we knew something “special” might be happening so we started watching the clock to find out exactly how far the movie would go before it surprised us at all.

It was very enjoyable because it does use the beats so well—but none of the setup caught us offguard at all.

Of course a great deal of that has to do with spoilers in trailers, too. Like with Miller’s Crossing. If you saw the trailers you KNEW Turturro’s character wasn’t dead. A real crime, that one.

SD: No, you didn’t call every shot in that movie. You just didn’t. You didn’t call that J.T. Walsh was going to literally pretend to Kurt Russell’s face that he never met him. You didn’t call that Russell would return to Belle’s diner and a guy pretending to have a mental disability would privately disclose where his wife had been taken. I could go on and on… And saying that you knew something “special” might be happening… well, that’s what every good thriller makes you feel.

GW: Well, yeah, Scott, I did—because those moments were given away in the trailer. And when you consume trailers the way you do movies, as I did in those days, those details stick with you. I just went back to the original theatrical trailer to prove it to myself—and those details are indeed there.

So when I say “special,” I mean that I knew Breakdown had been thoroughly ruined for me by the suits who decided how that trailer should be cut—a whole new level of stupidity.

The film itself is fine, and like most films should be experienced cold (a rule I set for myself once I became a reviewer). But in those days, I was just a very letdown popcorn muncher.

There is such a thing as knowing too much for one’s own good—and everyone else’s.

SD: Then you didn’t call those moments, you were shown them. Big difference.

The movie itself is unpredictable. I remember Roger Ebert being careful not to reveal much about the plot in his review to protect its unpredictability. And he saw more films than either of us.

GW: Scott, when I said Dave and I called those moments, I explicitly added the caveat that “a great deal of that has to do with spoilers in trailers.”

But when you put two seasoned moviegoers together alone in a screening, armed with eight or ten digestions of a spoiler-laden trailer, significant filmmaking knowledge, a load of intuition, and the ability to compare notes—there’s often not a lot left in the way of surprise. There just isn’t.

It’s really a cautionary tale for filmmakers, in my book—and one I’ve specifically shared over the years with filmmakers, critics, and students I’ve taught. The trailer is part of the filmgoing experience. If you cut that part loose to the suits to do with what they will, it can kill the experience for the audience. Breakdown and Miller’s Crossing are two prime, prime examples.

 (I imagine Ebert, as I did when I was reviewing films, probably avoided trailers.)

Let me throw in another comparison that I usually make when talking about Miller’s Crossing and Breakdown — from roughly the same period.

The Usual Suspects. Dave and I actually walked in to a screening of that film by mistake, having bought tickets to a different movie. Knew nothing about it—hadn’t seen a trailer at all. Fantastic moviegoing experience—and I’m sure that Breakdown could have been like that for us. But it simply wasn’t.

It’s not that Breakdown is a bad film. Not at all. I called it a “fine film” above. But real moviegoers do see trailers, and tons of them, and that’s part of how they process the movies they see.

So, no—absolutely nothing surprising happened in the first 70-odd minutes. That’s says everything about me, and nothing about the film.

SD: I read the script for The Sixth Sense before I saw the movie. I’d be a moron if I said that when I saw it, I called the twist ending which was totally predictable.

GW: I’ve been called a moron before, and worse!

SD: Richard Schickel once called me “a dope” in Time magazine, and that was back when people read Time magazine.

GW: My favorite reader comment was “You, sir, are a long-winded fool.” That was it!