I’m a sucker for the mystery/suspense/thriller genre. I can watch anything that remotely resembles a whodunit, even if it stars Ashley Judd and/or Andy Garcia and the shocking twist ending is telegraphed in the trailer. Chances are that if you slap together a movie with an unknown assailant and a driven protagonist trying to piece together the clues while playing outside the rules, I’ve seen it or will see it. And my oh my, there are lots of bad thrillers.
One underestimated thriller is 1997’s Switchback, starring Danny Glover and Dennis Quaid. Switchback was written by Jeb Stuart, one of the men behind the screenplays of the original Die Hard and the Harrison Ford Fugitive remake, two of the best action movies ever made. This is also Stuart’s directorial debut, and, sadly, in the following fifteen years he’s only made one more, a little, indy film called Blood Done Sign My Name (never seen it — I hadn’t even heard of it until I was researching this piece!).
Switchback is a variation on the ol’ serial killer versus dogged persuer theme.
F.B.I. agent Frank LaCrosse (Quaid) is obsessively pursuing a serial killer into the remote regions of West Texas (are there any other kind?). The killer recently struck in Amarillo, the town of Sheriff Buck Olmstead (R. Lee Ermey), who is in the middle of an election. LaCrosse enters the town like a man possessed, and acts in a manner most unbecoming of a F.B.I. agent to the extent that Olmstead and the audience have to wonder if LaCrosse’s interest is strictly professional.
Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds involving an amiable, eccentric drifter named Bob (Glover) who picks up a shy, hitchhiker named Lane Dixon (Jared Leto). The two men form an odd bond as they travel through the mountains. Bob serves as a creepy, quasi-mentor to Dixon, a young man on the run from his past. It becomes apparent rather quickly that one of these two guys is the killer. A suspect list of two — I can’t think of another time I’ve seen that in the genre.
The two stories, of LaCrosse and the local police investigating the case and Bob and Dixon’s exploits, circle each other until they collide in dramatic fashion.
There are some thrills and some chills along the way, but it’s the subtle nuances that I admire most about Switchback. Including the killer (who still possesses a certain ominous charm even after being revealed), all the supporting characters are likeable and interesting people. Even the smug smuck running against Olmstead (William Fichtner) has his redeeming, humanizing moment.
The relationship between the down to earth Sheriff Olmstead and the rogue LaCrosse is interesting and atypical of your usual Federal agent/local cop dynamic. Olmstead is trying to win the election, but he makes the difficult choice to side with LaCrosse at the expense of his own job in a touching moment.
Olmstead’s loyal Deputy Booker (Ted Levine) doesn’t play a particularly integral part of the story, but it’s a great, subtle performance that highlights the motivations and actions of the other characters. Booker is loyal to Olmstead to a fault, though he does not share Olmstead’s faith in LaCrosse. Watch Booker in the background when LaCrosse bluffs a defense attorney with a ruse involving a non-existent lab term, “36052” – it is hysterical.
Is Switchback a great movie? Nah, I wouldn’t go that far. It is pretty good, though. The movie does reveal the killer a little early in the game for my tastes. Still, if you’re a fan of thrillers like me, this is a good one to check out.
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