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Switchback (1997) is a tightly plotted thriller full of inventive twists and turns that is elevated by the authenticity brought to the characters by Danny Glover and a host of character actors like R. Lee Ermey, William Fichtner, and Ted Levine. The one place where this mid-budget thriller fails is in the character of FBI Special Agent LaCrosse played by Dennis Quaid. Perhaps writer/director Jeb Stuart and Quaid never saw eye to eye on the character or maybe Quaid was simply miscast.

The reason why Quaid’s overly stoic and remote performance hinders Switchback is that for over an hour it is the character of LaCrosse who is meant to sell the audience on the ferocity and sadism of Glover’s affable serial killer. Stuart has structured his film around the juxtaposition between Glover mentoring hitchhiking med student Jared Leto with Quaid’s hunt for Glover the cold blooded killer. Glover is so successful at playing this con on the audience that Quaid’s tight-lipped murmurs about evil feel far removed from the action.

All around Quaid a mini-political drama unfolds as a small town sheriff faces losing re-election. This secondary narrative gains far more traction with the viewer in the Quaid section of the film than the manhunt. The protagonist whom the audience is asked to invest in becomes secondary to his supporting cast and is entirely eclipsed by the bad guy.

With the exception of Dennis Quaid, Switchback really works. Stuart is a good enough screenwriter to imbue even the smallest part with a sense of genuine life. Switchback, in the writing, is a curious snapshot of the working class in Texas and Colorado who have eked out a living on the railways. Glover and the actors around him bring this unique and hardly explored milieu to life all while Stuart gradually allows Leto to become suspicious of his traveling companion. Then, in the final act, Stuart embraces the pulpier aspects of the genre and lets Switchback erupt into a sort of Emperor Of The North (1973).

Jeb Stuart had been an accomplished screenwriter for years before taking on his first director duties on Switchback. Stuart directs the film with a measured hand, allowing the performances to breath but never losing sight of what serves the suspense of the plot. It’s a mature work that reveals Stuart to be an expert craftsman equally adept behind the camera as he is behind the typewriter.

Back in the nineties it used to be that once a year a modestly budgeted, expertly made thriller like Switchback would come out that would often times be an even better film than the latest blockbuster. Today a film like Switchback would be dumped onto a streaming platform, would look terrible, and would lack the auteurist touch of a Stuart or John Dahl, Nicholas Kazan, or Tim Hunter. The passage of time has been kind to Switchback.