The Hitcher (1986), dir. Robert Harmon
The first ten minutes of The Hitcher account for some of the most intense and terrifying moments I can recollect having seen in film. They involve a young man, who in an effort to ward off exhaustion, picks up a hitchhiker caught in a sudden downpour in the Arizona desert. The hitcher, played by Rutger Hauer, who was equally as unnerving as the replicant, Roy Batty in Blade Runner, plays a similar sort here. Hauer possesses cool, chiseled features—complete with searing blue eyes, and an impishly sinister grin, all of which lend themselves all to well to the requisites of an effective villain. Almost immediately after the hitcher is picked up, it becomes evident to the young man, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) that he had made a grave error in electing to pull over. What happens next I won’t divulge, but it should be enough to make even the burliest of truck drivers wince the next time they see a lone hitchhiker on the side of the road. Much of the effectiveness of this early scene is due to its simple plausibility. Those of us with wild imaginations have probably conceived of the possibility of the frightening interplay that occurs between the hitcher and Jim here. Watching this scene only solidified it for me—I would never even consider giving anyone a lift again. However, and much to my dismay, by the end of the film I became much more open to the idea and would probably just think twice before doing so.
Following the intense opening scene, which showed so much promise, the film quickly plunges itself into a ludicrous series of a rapid encounters with the hitcher, further terrifying his victim, followed by one of the most fantastic frame-ups imaginable, culminating in his own pre-conceived death. I noted Hauer’s performance in Blade Runner, in which his character was endowed with superhuman strength. Somehow that attribute happened to traverse this film, with this character of the hitcher, whose name we learn is John Ryder. He is also endowed with supernatural powers—something akin to David Bowie’s as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, who has an all-seeing eye, can anticipate the other person’s every move, and present himself at will at just the right moment. As mentioned, he uses these absurd qualities to frame Jim for the other murders he has committed, and twice botches Jim’s own efforts to turn himself in as the framed mass murderer. During this sequence of events Jim encounters a young girl, Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who works at a restaurant who is ready to believe him. She rescues him from the police, who are at this point acting as vigilantes to take the killer down (whom they think is Jim), and then follows him on the road. The film is now notorious for the manner in which she dies: the hitcher ties her between two semi-trucks and to everyone’s disbelief actually does depress the gas pedal. It’s a cruel scene, and it demonstrates a lot of perversity on the filmmaker’s behalf. Nash is killed in such a ridiculous fashion simply because it plays against the audience’s expectations. ‘There’s no way he’s going to do it,’ we all think, but he actually does, and no one is laughing, except for maybe the producers of the film. This is not really a violent film, however. There is a lot of violence implied in the film, but very little of it is actually shown on camera. There are indeed a few gruesome scenes; one involving a dog licking the blood off of its brutally murdered owner, and another of Jim finding a severed finger in his French fries. The film ends with Jim shooting the hitcher dead, but we feel little satisfaction in this because it’s obvious that that’s what Ryder had planned all along.
Back in the opening scene, Jim asks the hitcher, “What do you want?” To this, he laughs sardonically and replies, “That’s what the last guy asked,” before he killed him. Jim wants to know, the last guy wanted to know, and we sure as hell want to know, too. John Ryder kills without any clear motive, and he does so generously. He also spares Jim Halsey, ostensibly to achieve his own death, but even this is not certain. To account for the actions of a crazed murderer in films by simply saying ‘he is psychotic’ without any hint as to why is a cop-out. It also says that the film is much more interested in being simply sadistic for the sake of being so, in order to satisfy the perversities of a given audience, and there is a large audience that exists sated by material like this. Violence is the key element these audiences seek, and I have very little in the way of objection with the use of violence in films, but it has to be blended with other well-conceived elements to fully justify it.
John Ryder is unfortunately a one-dimensional character, and that is one reason why this film is so dissatisfying. Its absurd storyline is the other. If we knew a little more about John Ryder and why it is he does the detestable things he does it would have made for a deeper picture. But that’s only one element. A few slasher films come to mind in which the filmmakers attempted to account for the actions of its psychotic killer, be it an abused childhood or a traumatic experience, but the film was still a stinker. In the case of The Hitcher, the audience is also not given much in the way to approach how to relate to the film's protagonist. There’s no exposition in this picture; we’re flung into the action at the very beginning of film, and have little reason to care for Jim. Especially when after his initial escape, he reacts by releasing a string of obscenities in a childish tone, just moments after being fully emasculated by the hitcher. It has junior high school written all over it. The film’s greatest flaw, however, is its election to have Jim chased and manipulated in the most unbelievable fashion following that great opening scene. I feel that had they elected to have the hitcher remain in the car with Jim for the duration of the picture, thus enabling him to manipulate Jim even more closely, it would have aided in retaining the intensity that was so firmly established in the opening minutes, also granting us a greater peek into the minds and personas of its principle characters, and frankly, would have opened up more creative possibilities along the way. What you have instead is an at times laughable thriller, whose sickness and perversity are shamelessly exploited, leaving the viewer without an iota of substance to latch onto.