Jeb Stuart’s Switchback

I’ve always really liked Jeb Stuart’s Switchback, despite it not being as taut a thriller or as well oiled a machine as it thinks it is, it’s one of those slightly Hitchcockian, well photographed and terrifically casted shockers that still services and sort of grows on you. I also remember, before ever being allowed to see stuff like this when I was really young, seeing a few short scenes of it on cable at my dad’s work and being riveted to the seat in fear and fascination as Danny Glover and Jared Leto drove through the night in the Rocky Mountains, each trying to out-creep the other. I had no idea what the film was, but years later I found the DVD and was reminded of those few short scenes I saw that had immense power on my still impressionable perception. The hook is that either Leto or Glover is the killer, and we’re saddled with an extended guessing game as they plough through snow covered highways and the tension mounts between them. Elsewhere, Dennis Quaid plays a stoic, relentless rogue FBI Agent whose infant son was kidnaped by the same killer a year or so before. His search leads him through a string of remote mountain towns where he clashes with local law enforcement and gradually gets closer to the murderer’s trail, which went cold a while back. It’s an odd, obtusely paced concept for a thriller that almost seems a bit muddled and reworked from something more succinct in the scriptwriting phase, but it’s one of those that you buy anyways simply because the cast and cinematography are so first rate. Quaid is cold and desolate as the Agent, hoarsely intoning his lines with enough intensity to implode a diamond, deliberately reigning in his usually charming persona and famous mile wide grin. Glover is boisterous, and just friendly enough that the creep factor sets in, while Leto plays naive and sensitive til we see through the facade (see how long it takes you to guess which is the killer). The late great R. Lee Ermey is excellent here in a rare soft spoken performance as a kindly local Sheriff who assists and befriends Quaid, even when it puts his badge at risk. Ted Levine shows up as his head deputy, and watch for Walton Goggins and underrated William Fichtner as an opposing candidate for Sheriff’s office. Like I said, this isn’t the crackling thriller it should be with all this talent onboard, it has its issues with a weirdly drawn plot and some clunky story beats. But when it works, it’s memorable, and you can’t beat intrigue set in the gorgeous Rockies, especially when there’s a tense freight train set piece involved. Fun, engaging, slight overall but definitely worth a watch.

-Nate Hill

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