June 2024

Switchback (1997)


Jeb Stuart


Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Ted Levine, William Fichtner, Leo Burmester


Unlike most entries in the serial killer/thriller genre, Switchback moves at a leisurely pace, relying more on character development than jolts, but it’s a solid effort that sets itself apart from standards of the genre in some ways yet is a worthy entry among them.

There are three main storyline strands. The first involves a small-town election race between Sheriff Buck Olmstead (R. Lee Ermey) and a younger rival (William Fichtner), with their competition extending to when a killer strikes in one of their jurisdictions. The second arrives in the form of Frank LaCrosse (Dennis Quaid), an FBI agent with an icy demeanor who comes to town on the trail of a serial killer. And the third belongs to Lane Dixon (Jared Leto), a young drifter hitchhiking his way toward Salt Lake City, and Bob Goodall (Danny Glover), an affable fellow with a white Cadillac decorated inside with naked pinups who offers him a lift and soon comes to his rescue when Dixon ill-advisedly drops off at a seedy bar. All these plotlines will come to intertwine as Frank’s hunt for the serial killer brings him closer to a nemesis he’s never seen.

Switchback toys with us for a little while about the identity of the serial killer, but it’s not really that much of a mystery. The movie throws in a couple red herrings and makes a halfway effort to sow some doubts, but it’s possible to surmise who the killer is about twenty minutes in, and it’s explicitly revealed around the halfway mark. This is not a criticism. The film is intended as more of a character-driven drama than a whodunit. I actually prefer a movie where the killer is a character with a face rather than a faceless bogeyman, and it’s to Switchback’s credit that it develops the killer into more of a person than a one-note Michael Myers-esque slasher. Jeb Stuart, who also wrote the screenplay, also avoids making it a routine chase film. While the plot climaxes as conventional as they come, with the FBI agent and the killer going mano-a-mano on a racing train winding through the mountains, Frank and the murderer don’t come face-to-face until the final ten minutes or so, and Switchback spends a lot of time developing other plot strands, like the sheriff election race that affects the way the cops approach their jobs, and the “buddy movie”-esque relationship between Dixon and Bob. Many reviewers seemed to feel this slowed the pace and diluted the tension, but since Switchback’s focus is more on character than cheap thrills, I appreciated the time spent developing the principals.

Which is not to say there is no tension in Switchback. There’s a few taut scenes of suspense about whether or not the killer is about to strike again, and the journey deeper into the mountains, where the weather grows worse and mountain roads more dangerous accentuates the sense of building danger. There’s also ambiguity, which lasts in some cases longer than others, about each of the three leads.  Quaid plays Frank with such a closed-off, almost robotic manner that we suspect there are things he’s not being forthcoming about.  Likewise, there’s something a little enigmatic and ambiguous about Dixon that makes us uncertain if he’s as innocent as he seems.  The cheerful Bob seems the most straightforward, but shows a hint of danger early on. In the end, the character who’s the most ‘what you see is what you get’ is Sheriff Buck Olmstead.

Dennis Quaid plays Frank with quiet intensity. Quaid’s underplaying sometimes threatens to make Frank seem emotionless, but Quaid occasionally allows us to glimpse the desperation beneath his tightly-controlled exterior. Danny Glover brings enough charm and charisma to Bob that we can buy that he seems to have buddies in every town in the West. Jared Leto is effective in his low-key role, playing his cards close enough to his chest that we’re not sure whether there’s something he’s not giving away. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scene-stealer is R. Lee Ermey, whose Buck is a cynical, practical, morally upright old lawman who arguably seems the most like an actual person of anyone in the movie.

Jeb Stuart in his directorial debut (previously best-known as the screenwriter of Die Hard and The Fugitive) and cinematographer Oliver Wood do an excellent job capturing the rugged Western scenery of snow-capped mountains, and in a way the surroundings become as much of a character as anything, escalating the tension as our characters head deeper into the wilderness. Switchback doesn’t rely on a breakneck pace, an overload of conventional action, or contrived plot twists, just well-developed characters and a well-constructed game between hunter and hunted in which it’s not completely clear who is which role. If there any significant complaints, it’s that the fate of one of the three leads is left ambiguous, and the climax is by-the-book cop vs. killer convention. But the way there takes an offbeat and uncertain route, and for his directorial debut, Jeb Stuart can be credited with a job well-done.