It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Breakdown'' is taut, skillful and surgically effective, the story of a man who finds himself trapped in a surrealistic nightmare. The story's setup is more entertaining than the payoff; as Hitchcock observed, suspense plays better than action. But the film delivers--right up until a final moment I'll get to later.
Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan star as a Massachusetts couple driving to California through the deserts of the Southwest. They've made two mistakes, as a character later helpfully explains: driving a brand-new red Jeep and having out-of-state plates. In the middle of nowhere, the car breaks down, or so they think, and they are left at the mercy of the locals.
The locals do not come well-advertised. Early in the film, the Jeep nearly sideswipes a dusty black pickup driven by a stringy-haired goon (M.C. Gainey) who looks like he belongs back home in the swamps of "Deliverance". He later accosts them at a gas station, and Russell floors the Jeep in an attempt to put highway space between them. That may be a mistake during the new car's break-in period; it has an engine meltdown in the desert, and they seem to be at the mercy of the goon until a helpful semi driver (J.T. Walsh) happens along.
Now I will move carefully to conserve plot details. Walsh offers them a ride to a nearby diner, Russell chooses to stay with his car, and Quinlan accepts the offer so she can phone a road service. But when Russell later arrives at the diner, no one there has seen his wife. And when he stops the truck driver for a highway showdown with a deputy sheriff on hand, Walsh convincingly argues he has never seen the woman. Russell narrowly avoids being arrested, and is left standing beside his car in the middle of nowhere, baffled and angered by the disappearance of his wife.