Published November 1, 1997
There is scarcely a cliché of the 1990s Hollywood thriller that is not to be found in Switchback, written and directed by Jeb Stuart. By now, the figure of the serial killer — so rare in nature, so common in the movies — has become such a familiar one that a filmmaker like Stuart will think nothing of insulting our intelligence with a specimen of the genre who kills not for sexual thrills nor money nor any discernible reason at all but just because it is in his job description. I beg your pardon (or you can stop reading now) if you mean to waste your time and money on this nonsense and wish to preserve whatever pathetic thrill it is you get from the undemanding task of guessing whodunnit, but the bad guy here is a friendly old railroad worker called Bob (Danny Glover). He turns out a sicko who kills by slicing through the femoral arteries not of just of virginal maidens but (among others) old men who have known and befriended him for years.
This is territory that even the Marquis de Sade never dreamed of. Of course we’re not supposed to believe it. This is the movies after all, and the point is simply to make the murderer the least likely of the candidates for the job, at whatever cost in credibility. We are also, and inevitably, provided with an alternative candidate (Jared Leeto) — who, by the rules of movie serial killing, cannot have done it because he so obviously must have done it — and a renegade FBI agent called Frank LaCrosse (Dennis Quaid) who risks his career to pursue the killer (the typically cretinous FBI has closed the case) because the latter has kidnapped his son! Being a playful kind of guy — as movie serial killers generally are and real ones generally aren’t — Bob then sends LaCrosse cryptic messages containing clues, undecipherable by anyone except movie-cops, as to where he may be found.
“He turned it into a damn game on you,” says the fatherly Texas sheriff called Buck Olmstead (R. Lee Ermey) who helps Frank at a crucial moment when he is on the run from his FBI colleagues and towards an inevitably dramatic confrontation with the killer. Buck even chooses to lose his bid for re-election rather than detain poor Frank at the behest of the feds. That may not be quite as ridiculously unbelievable as Danny Glover playing a serial killer, but it comes pretty close. Like his killer, Stuart has turned his handiwork into a damn game on us, but it is not a game many will find it amusing to play.