Imagine my surprise when a cursory online search revealed that virtually no critic of note has written a modern reassessment of the 1986 serial-killer-road-movie cum neo-western The Hitcher. Barely released into theaters, the film was a financial failure and was roundly eviscerated by critics — those famous arbiters of middle-brow taste, Siskel & Ebert, both hated it. It eventually garnered a cult reputation on VHS — enough so, in fact, to even get a slick 2000s remake from Michael Bay’s vanity label Platinum Dunes. A dubious honor, certainly, and one which has seemingly led only to this more recent mediocrity fully supplanting the original in the marketplace (naturally, the 2007 version is readily available on hi-def Blu-Ray while the original is not; adding insult to injury, the ’86 version is available to stream on HBO, but only in the wrong aspect ratio). Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that this mean little B-picture exists only on the periphery of the popular imagination, even as the digital age has unearthed never before imagined amounts of bizarre, marginalized cinematic detritus. Part Carpenter’s Halloween, part Spielberg’s Duel, and with a dash of Cameron’s The Terminator, screenwriter Eric Red and director Robert Harmon crafted an absolutely merciless thriller, replete with barely suppressed psychological fissures and sexual innuendo, envisioning the wide-open expanses of the American West as a violent battlefield stalked by an emotionless psychopath who’s only desire is to destroy. It’s a battle for the soul of the country played out as a literal death drive. If one of the main tropes of the Western genre was the primacy of American exceptionalism, this is the perverted flip-side, where Monument Valley manifests an unstoppable killing machine instead of a rugged hero.
In fairness, this is perhaps too much subtextual baggage to assign a film that is, at its best, a sleek perpetual motion machine, a relentless thriller that barely stops to take a breath. Like the best dark fairy tales, it starts on a dark and stormy night. Callow youth Jim Halsey (an unremarkable C. Thomas Howell, appropriately bland as an average nobody in over his head) is driving a car cross-country for a client as part of some kind of delivery service. Dozing off at the wheel, he stops and picks up a hitchhiker. The stranger introduces himself as John Ryder, and, as played by the great Rutger Hauer, there’s immediately something off about him. His speech exhibits a halting cadence, and his stare a little too intense. Their mundane conversation quickly turns strange, and soon Ryder is goading the younger man into declaring that he “wants to die.” Halsey rises to the occasion and shoves Ryder out of the moving car, but his ecstatic revelry — essentially celebrating his reassertion of masculine dominance — is short-lived, as Ryder reappears in the backseat of another car speeding by. When Halsey finds the car crashed and the family inside slaughtered, the film becomes a wrong-man thriller, as Halsey evades both the police, who think he is the murderer, and Ryder, with the help of diner waitress Nash (a flinty turn from a young Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Screenwriter Eric Red has made a career out of mixing and matching disparate genres, not unlike a proto-Tarantino of sorts. He’s most famous for writing a couple of early Kathryn Bigelow films (Near Dark and Blue Steel) before jumping into the director chair himself. Virtually all of his films betray a fascination with that most American of genres, the Western, and that most American of past times, the road trip. For his part, director Richard Harmon never made anything as interesting as The Hitcher again, churning out a few mid-tier thrillers before becoming a mostly anonymous staple of made-for-television cop movies. But here, working with future Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale (long time collaborator of such heavy hitters as George Miller, Peter Weir, and Anthony Minghella), Harmon displays a remarkable ability to frame wide-open, sun-kissed expanses of barren landscapes, as well as piece together some stunning set pieces. There’s a spare precision to his frames, a sharp, angular quality that turns interiors into cramped, claustrophobic coffins. The editing is precision-tuned, lingering here and there before cutting to something shocking, and allowing Ryder to appear and disappear from a scene like a hulking phantom. There’s an eerie tour through a destroyed police station, as Ryder frees Halsey from a cell only to frame him for even more deaths, as well as a remarkable chase sequence with some fantastic car stunts. Red and Harmon have conceptualized Ryder less as a realistic character than an embodiment of a kind of existential amorality. The late Jim Ridley, in a review of the then new remake, remarked that Ryder is pure Id, an apt description (and, curiously, an observation that Ebert made in his original zero-star review, albeit as an example of the film’s dangerous lack of morality). The film ends dangling on a fascinating precipice, as this other has been vanquished and order restored. But at what cost, and what led it to materialize in the first place? In Red’s conception of the world, violence begets violence, and there’s no escaping from yourself.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.