(1986) Directed by Robert Harmon; Written by: Eric Red; Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, and Jennifer Jason Leigh; Available on DVD.
“…I cut off his legs, and his arms, and his head, and I’m gonna do the same to you.”
– John Ryder (Rutger Hauer)
The Hitcher is an unnerving, perplexing film that vacillates between being an intimate thriller and an action movie, like Hitchcock filtered through Michael Bay’s lens. Despite a lukewarm critical and box office reception, the film has gained a loyal cult following over the years, thanks in no small part to Rutger Hauer’s chilling performance as the titular character. Set in the dusty American southwest, The Hitcher focuses on Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), a young man tasked with a “drive-away,” transporting a car from Chicago to its owner in San Diego. During a rainy, tedious night, he decides to pick up a drifter to break up the monotony, which turns out to be a big mistake. Things escalate quickly, as Jim learns about his passenger’s true intent, and the cat and mouse games begin.
Hauer’s icy portrayal of the sociopathic Ryder is by far the best thing about the film. From one minute to the next, you’re never sure what he’s planning to do. As Ryder taunts Jim with “I want you to stop me,” you get the feeling he never has less than the upper hand. Every scene with Hauer oozes menace. In one of the best scenes, he sits in the back of a station wagon, playing with a pair of kids, while their oblivious parents are up front. Under different circumstances, the sequence would be innocuous, but given the exchange between Ryder and Jim in the previous scenes, you know this won’t come to a good end.
Howell does a serviceable (if unremarkable) job as Ryder’s stooge. Similar to a Hitchcock protagonist, he’s an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, but he’s no James Stewart or Cary Grant. Compared to his opponent, Jim doesn’t seem particularly bright, as he continues to place himself in jeopardy and let his guard down. As Ryder outsmarted Jim at every turn, I wished the film had included a character with more of an edge. One intriguing thread the film introduces but never follows through with is a connection that forms between the two, but it’s never fleshed out, thanks to a few too many high-octane action chase scenes.
Jennifer Jason Leigh does a good job with the hand she’s dealt as Nash, a likeable but naïve roadside café waitress. Nash is a small town girl with aspirations for something better, even if she can’t quite articulate what that something would be. When Jim is framed for murder, she stands up for him, but the two characters never build much chemistry. Ultimately, Nash isn’t given much to do except become one of Ryder’s pawns.
Upon its release, The Hitcher was unfairly taken to task by some critics for being too violent and sadistic. Although there are a few “gross out” moments, director Robert Harmon and screenwriter Eric Red demonstrated commendable restraint by keeping most of the more horrific events off-screen. Ryder’s descriptions of what he did to his victims create more horrific imagery in the mind’s eye than anything that could have been depicted on screen.
Where the film falters is its over-reliance on road chase sequences, with plentiful car crashes and explosions, which only divert the audience from Ryder and Jim. The Hitcher becomes the shaggy dog of thrillers, as one situation builds off of the next, making the film more unbelievable as it progresses. When things get out of hand, it’s hard to imagine the local authorities wouldn’t have called for assistance from state police or the FBI. As the body count escalates, logic would dictate he’d put as much distance between himself and Ryder as possible, instead of checking into a local motel with Nash.
I would never profess to put myself in the minds of other viewers, or question their fealty to The Hitcher, but I wager the first thing to come to mind would be Hauer’s terrifying portrayal of evil incarnate. Howell pales by comparison, appearing out of his league when the two actors are together. The showier, stunt-laden scenes just seem shoehorned into the film to keep viewers with short attention spans entertained. While The Hitcher falls short of the classic that some would have you believe, it’s worth checking out for Hauer’s deranged, mesmerizing performance, and almost makes me want to forgive the film’s trespasses. If you’re looking for a more successful film about a sociopathic hitchhiker, however, you might consider Ida Lupino’s 1953 film noir, The Hitch-Hiker.