' ' Cinema Romantico: Middling Thriller March: Switchback (1997)

Monday, March 29, 2021

Middling Thriller March: Switchback (1997)

Three years before he wrote the seminal script for “Die Hard”, Jeb Stuart wrote a movie he called “Going West in America”, combining, as he said in an EW article at the time, a road movie with a serial killer storyline because he figured two was better than one, the sort of nimble commercial thinking that is pure Hollywood. I mean that as a compliment. It would, however, after several starts and stops, take 13 years for “Going West in America” to make it to the big screen, re-christened “Switchback”, because, in Hollywood, one word is better than four. And while “Switchback” frequently falls back on rote elements and plotting, like an opening home invasion in which an infant is abducted that is played entirely straight and capped by a cat jump scare, the whole sequence coming across like something “Scream” would have been parodying one year earlier, there are nevertheless agreeable glimmers of ingenuity. The nooks and crannies of Stuart’s screenplay are interesting, often more so than the main storyline, making you wish he might have considered a narrative trade-in, and the movie also contains one unique performance beamed in from somewhere else.

The story picks up a few months after the child abduction in Amarillo, Texas where two people are found murdered in a motel room. Sheriff Buck Olmstead (R. Lee Ermey) is not only tasked with investigating but balancing that investigation against an upcoming election versus Police Chief Jack McGinnis (William Fichtner). These dueling stories might have made for a movie itself, and for a brief time seem like they might be just that, as Stuart waits longer than expected to bring FBI agent Frank LaCrosse (Dennis Quaid) into the mix. (Frank LaCrosse is a great name, by the way, proving that one of the best ways to concoct a slightly heightened movie character name is to crib a surname from the name of a city.) Upon Frank’s arrival, however, “Switchback” mostly hands the story off to him, eventually revealing that his son was the one abducted, meaning that this time it’s personal. That hoary narrative chestnut is worsened by Quaid’s performance. To his credit, he’s doing something, not just phoning it in, but in doing something he downplays so severely that rather than becoming compellingly aloof, as I think is intended, he’s just monotone. Ermey proves far more compelling as someone dealing with real world consequences even as he tends to his own personal interests and, in one incredible moment improbably set inside a jail cell, he makes doing the right thing seem like the most casual thing in the world.

Through Frank’s late entry and the revelation that his character has gone semi-rouge are meant to suggest he might be the killer, it’s nevertheless fairly clear that, no, he is not the killer at all. (I kept imagining Fichtner as LaCrosse. Because he might have brought the kind of manic energy necessary to pull off this bluff.) No, the killer must be one of two men: hitchhiker Lane Dixon (Jared Leto) or the man who picks him up, Bob Goodall (Danny Glover). They are an Odd Couple. In this corner we have Lane, played by a Leto modern audiences might not recognize, not because he looks different but because the overcommitted, acting! scenery chewer of lore is nowhere to be found. No, Leto’s performance is impressively internal, quietly evincing something gnawing at him without ever he or the script rendering it explicit. In the other corner, Bob never shuts up, treating every encounter like the chance to make a new friend. And by placing them in the same car and then divvying out suggestive details, “Switchback” lets us play detective, deciding who we think it is. It is odd, then, when Stuart spills the secret midway through, revealing the serial killer as Bob and meaning we have to endure an extended, needless dance in which Lane goes back and forth between thinking his road buddy is the bad guy and that he is not.

Bob is revealed as the killer in a scene at a convenience store where he makes small talk with the clerk (Merle Kennedy) even as it gradually becomes clear he is arranging the entire scene to quietly off her. This unexpectedly proves the best scene in the movie. Stuart writes real dialogue for Kennedy’s character and Kennedy generates genuine empathy in her disposition, building off a character who still had to hoof it to work despite an approaching blizzard, which makes it truly affecting when it gradually becomes clear that Bob intends to kill her. (Through a matter of fate, he doesn’t.) Why, exactly, he wants to kill her, or anybody else for that matter, is never quite clear. Indeed, contemporary reviews seem to almost unilaterally criticize Glover’s oddly garrulous air as failing to evince his character’s lurking motivation, though that’s exactly what I appreciated about Glover’s turn, that rather than playing to the movie cliché of some deep-seated reasoning he instead comes across broken beyond rationale, far out and far gone. The climactic chase atop a train barreling through the mountains isn’t too bad, really, but I found myself most gripped by Bob’s denouement, falling from the train and tumbling through the snow, accentuated by Glover’s “Yee-haw.” That “Yee-haw” is not ridiculous or overwrought but right on, some incomprehensible enthusiastic evil he takes to his grave. 

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