Switchback (1997) – A lost gem in the wilderness waiting to be discovered.

1997’s Switchback is something of a strange pick for a celebratory retrospective if you are looking to get some positive feedback in the realm of film writing and criticism as it seems that most “professional” film critics didn’t like it very much at the time of its release and the film bombed at the box office, having only recouped $6 million dollars domestically in the US of its $38 million dollar budget. My own editor even questioned my decision to write about such a little seen and very much forgotten film but please, hear me out.

So, strange choice of film to write about though it may be, having revisited the film recently, I still find it a bloody good watch, despite its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 32% which comes as a big surprise. Released in 1997 and written and directed by Jeb Stuart who was noted as being responsible for co-writing some major blockbusters such as Die Hard and The Fugitive. Switchback marked his directorial debut and it’s said that the film’s reviews upon release played a major part in him semi-retiring from filmmaking for over a decade afterwards.

The thriller features a stellar cast despite the artwork on the DVD cover, which only highlights Dennis Quaid and Danny Glover, the film also stars a young Jared Leto, William Ficthner and the always reliable Ted Levine and R. Lee Ermey.

It’s essentially a road movie cum thriller with the narrative moving from Amarillo Texas, onto New Mexico and then the South Colorado mountains. Despite its less than favourable reception at the time of it’s release, I really admire what Stuart did here, essentially combining three interlocking storylines into one compelling tale. The first story features the kidnapping of a young boy and the murder of his babysitter which stems from a night time visitor claiming to be a family friend. The murder of the babysitter is caused by her having her femoral artery slit by a large hunting knife in a single slice, by an unseen but professional killer. We later find out that the child’s father is FBI agent Frank LaCrosse (Quaid) who had previously been hot on the trail of a serial killer due to a spate of separate murders all involving the same modus operandi as that of the aforementioned babysitter.

The second story is set three months after the kidnapping and involves hitchhiker Lane Dixon (Leto) who is given a lift from a modern day urban cowboy, Bob Goodall (Glover). Goodall is quite the character. Cocky and brash with a dry, blunt sense of humour which immediately causes Dixon to feel uneasy, coupled with the fact that Goodhall is driving a white coloured Cadillac Eldorado, which has its entire interior plastered in laminated glamour photos of naked women, which he glibly refers to as his “girls”. After an initial standoff between the two men, they find a common ground when faced with violence at a local redneck filled miners bar. With both men traveling to Southern Colorado they then make their journey through various mining towns whilst stopping off at different locations where much of Goodhall’s past is revealed by old friends along the way. It soon becomes apparent that he has had numerous jobs within the communities over the years, never stopping anywhere for long. We also find out that Dixon has assumed his drifter lifestyle after failing as a student Doctor. Dixon also seems to have some surgical skills when he is seen having to complete an emergency tracheotomy on a choking diner.

The third story is also set three months after the kidnapping in Amarillo Texas and features the story of long term Sheriff, Buck Olmstead (Ermey) and his chief deputy and best friend/verbal sparring partner Nate Barden (Levine). Olmstead is up for re-election in his post and for the first time in many years finds himself up against som serious competition in the form of his opponent, City Police Chief Jack McGinnis (Fichtner). After a grisly hotel murder takes place, whereby one of the victims had their femoral artery sliced, both men are desperate for the arrest of the culprit as it will almost certainly provide the sway needed by local voters for them to win the election.

At this point Agent LaCrosse arrives in town and informs Olmstead that he is of the belief that the suspect for this local crime is also the serial killer that he is attempting to track down. Following this a brief investigation takes place and a stolen vehicle linked to the crime is spotted. The suspect is tracked down to a local apartment block, but after some somewhat unorthodox questioning by LaCrosse it is deemed that the suspect is in no way linked to the crime and merely a car thief, but with further investigation the suspect’s stolen vehicle has false plates on it which originally belonged to a white coloured Cadillac Eldorado.

What follows is the continuation of Goodhall and Dixon’s road trip and the subsequent investigation by LaCrosse and Olmstead. Both groups of men bonding through circumstances that unfold throughout the narrative. One thing is for sure, either Goodhall or Dixon is the elusive serial killer and the narrative hints heavily at one of them in particular, whilst dropping a lot more subtle hints at the other.

By way of the film’s locales, Switchback is almost by default stunning in the cinematic sense, as so much of it features Goodhall and Dixon’s road trip through the beautiful, snow capped mountain scenery and the colourful characters they meet along the way all add to the modern day western vibe. Coupled with the scenes involving Olmstead and Barden, which very effectively encapsulate the mutual respect shared between both men, whilst still keeping up a constant stream of machismo and restraint from the two old fashioned, Southern law men.

For me this is arguably Glover’s best role. The way his character can organically switch from being genial and full of heart, to menacing and dangerous is something to behold. Glover manages to convince that his character is a man that would happily give you the shirt off his back, only to then pull a knife on you for a cross word moments later. This is also a very different role than we are used to seeing from Ermey who commands respect from his officers with a soft, yet stern composure that never slips and his handling of his local rival portrays a committed, law enforcer, more interested in the safety of his community and his officers, than winning any popularity contests. This also comes to the surface in his initial confrontations with LaCrosse, however as he finds out more about the agent, particularly concerning LaCrosse’s personal motivation, the old fashioned and committed Sheriff finds it in his heart to bend his own, self imposed rules.

Quaid plays his own role very sternly portraying a very focused man on a mission. In one scene however, he lets his defences drop for a second revealing a softness that was perhaps his present in his former self before the kidnapping of his son, but he is quickly pulled back into his extremely personal assignment with his ongoing investigation of the killer in the hope that his son is somehow still alive. LaCrosse is a driven maverick that will stop at nothing to locate his prey.

Jared Leto, devoid of the eccentric mannerisms displayed in many of his more recent roles puts in a fine performance. His more subtle approach worked for me, with him effectively portraying a man filled with deep secrets hidden deep beyond the exterior facade of a wide-eyed loner he shows to those around him.

The score by the late Basil Poledouris is as always stunning and his haunting melodies fit perfectly within the piece, as opposed to his more dramatic but no less effective scores in earlier films such as Conan the Barbarian and RoboCop.

In consideration of the fact that Switchback seems to have slipped under the radar of many, I would definitely suggest that you seek it out. Whilst it falls slightly short of other modern day, western inspired thrillers such as No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water in terms of the overall quality of direction it is pulled together by a fine script and some brilliant performances from a great and varied cast. Sometimes writing about a film no one cares for or hasn’t seen can seem a thankless chore but if just one person does as I did and rediscovers this minor gem of a film then my efforts have been worthwhile.

Film ’89 Verdict – 7.5/10

Switchback is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download.