Dennis Quaid has been in the movie business since debuting as an uncredited bellhop in 1975’s Crazy Mama, and he’s made another 67 feature film appearances in the four decades since. He frequently jumps across genres from comedies to action to prestige drama, but there’s one near-constant throughout his filmography: Almost all of his lead roles are in films designed to have popular appeal.
Not all of Quaid’s choices were hits — most weren’t, in fact — but most were clearly hopeful of becoming hits. Yes, even the goofy Wilder Napalm (1993) was thought to have a chance of catching fire at the box office. That sounds obvious, I know, but many actors slip more regularly into indies or niche films that no one really expects to make a lot of money. Quaid, though, has only three real exceptions among the films where he played a leading role (which is most of them, an impressive feat in its own right).
As a fan of all three I’ve always referred to them as his unofficial “dark downer” trilogy — Flesh and Bone (1993), Switchback (1997), and Horsemen (2009). Each is a bleak, moody, slow-paced thriller featuring a child or two at the heart of their respective terrors, and while there are a few bursts of action between them (most notably in the middle film), they’re far more interested in a heavy atmosphere of dread and emotional suffering. These aren’t typically the sentiments that lead to box-office success, and all three understandably tanked. They haven’t fared much better on the critical front, with current Rotten Tomatoes scores of 67%, 32%, and 33%, respectively.
These three movies never stood a chance of becoming hits. Again, I’m a fan of the films to varying degrees, but I’m also fascinated by how apart they stand from his far more traditional — and typically heroic or at least “important” — leading-man roles.
(Editor’s note: No major spoilers follow. This is a safe space.)
Flesh and Bone sees a man and a woman meet in rural Texas, and while most films would spin a romantic tale from that setup, writer/director Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) instead offers a slow-motion gut punch. Arlis (Quaid) lost his childhood to a criminal father who used him to gain entry to homes under the guise of being a lost little boy. Once in and secure for the night, young Arlis would unlock the doors, help his father steal anything of value, and escape into the darkness. One incident, though, sees the kind strangers awake at an unfortunate time, leading Arlis’ father to murder them in cold blood. They leave only corpses and a crying baby behind.
Three decades later Arlis is living a solitary life devoid of close human contact. An opportunity to change that comes in the form of Kay (Meg Ryan). She’s every bit as lonely and lost, and the quiet pair soon hit it off. This rare bright spot in Arlis’ life is just as quickly interrupted by the return of his father, Roy (James Caan), who’s still profiting from the suffering of others. A renewed conflict between father and son begins to build, with Kay as the catalyst that fully ignites it. The film ends with everyone either dead or in despair.
This is not an outcome that audiences crave, and in addition to that utterly depressing ending, the entirety of the film moves like the air on a hot and still Texas evening. There are no bursts of energy to be found, and instead it’s powered forward by misery and pain. Caan brings a heartless evil, Ryan shows a sad innocence, and between them is a constantly scowling Quaid. His Arlis is a man unable to forgive himself for deeds well beyond his control, and even after the man responsible is gone, the damage remains irreversible. It’s a fantastic film, but it was never going to find wide appeal with an end message like that.
Switchback puts Quaid in a more active role as an FBI agent and father, but instead of a character shaped by the misdeeds of his father, this time it’s his actions that put his own son in jeopardy. Agent LaCrosse (Quaid) arrives in rural Texas (again) at the scene of a brutal double homicide and informs the locals through his scowl that it’s the work of a serial killer he’s been tracking. His bosses, meanwhile, inform the same locals that he’s off his rocker and that the case was closed months prior. We soon learn that LaCrosse’s young son was abducted, and he’s obsessed with the idea that it’s the work of a killer who the FBI believes to be dead but who he believes had set up a fall guy to take the rap.
The film also introduces two other characters with a man (Danny Glover) who picks up a younger hitchhiker (Jared Leto), and we’re led to believe that either one could be the killer LaCrosse is seeking. The two story threads eventually dovetail aboard a train hurtling across a snowy, mountainous landscape, and it’s here in the third act where the film’s pacing finally picks up. It’s a two-hour film, though, meaning for most audiences it turned out to be too little too late. It’s a shame, as all three actors do great, serious work here, with Glover and Leto’s characters pushing LaCrosse to the (literal) edge in his quest to find his son.
Had the film ended in tune with the preceding casual nihilism, it might even spoken of in the same conversations as films like The Pledge (2001). But writer/director Jeb Stuart (screenwriter of Die Hard, The Fugitive) can’t commit to the darkness already in motion and tacks on a falsely happy ending to his very unhappy film.
After facing a damaged childhood in Flesh and Bone and overcoming evil to save his child in Switchback, Quaid returned to the endangered-child well one last time with Horsemen. It’s the darkest and roughest of the three, but it’s also the most muddled and shaky in its execution.
Bloody teeth are found on an elaborate altar in the woods, and Det. Aidan Breslin (Quaid) is called in for his forensic expertise. His permanent scowl is deceptive as he’d rather be working this case than facing the recent loss of his wife to cancer or dealing with his two sons, who are still actively grieving. A body is discovered, and then another, and they share similarities — rigs that suspend the victims in the air via hooks and wire — indicating multiple assailants who not only made their victims suffer but also removed something from the bodies. Breslin eventually discovers the murders are the work of the self-declared “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and he catches a break when one of them confesses.
The adopted daughter (Ziyi Zhang) of a female victim offers Breslin a grim smile alongside the bloody fetus she removed from her mother. She details the sexual abuse she endured at her father’s hand, abuse allowed by the mother to continue, and while the killers share a grand view of destruction, it’s made clear that motivations remain very personal. Another of the Horsemen strikes out against his aggressively cruel brother before taking his own life, and the pattern comes clearer. No, not to the detectives as Breslin and his partner Stingray (Clifton Collins Jr.) — yes, Stingray — have yet to fully connect the dots, but to viewers. All of the misery and suffering in the film is motivated by the actions and inaction of family members inflicted on each other. Disinterest and detachment, both emotional and physical, will be our downfall.
A son emotionally damaged by his father’s callous evil, a father who failed to protect his own son, and a father who fails his children when they need him most — with slight tweaks, each of these story lines could be turned into dramatic, powerful tales of growth and rediscovered lives, but as they stand they act as grim and brutal condemnations of the grand lie that is family. It’s just not something general audiences would ever be drawn to, and to that end, Quaid’s most recent appearances are in a prestige drama about the responsibilities of the press, a “family” comedy with Charlie Sheen, and an ensemble drama about a reincarnated dog.
Rob Hunter lives in California, has never experienced a happy ending.