Credit: Blumhouse Television
by Conor Truax Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Passenger — Carter Smith

August 14, 2023

Crime-thriller road films are a long-beloved American trademark, from Badlands to True Romance. In his new feature The Passenger, Carter Smith takes us on a ride unlike any other, for better or worse; unlike most of its subgenre predecessors, The Passenger doesn’t take us cross-country, and neither of the people we’re riding with are particularly likable. At the film’s center is Benson (Kyle Gallner), a loose-cannon metalhead who blows a fuse at the sight of his fast food co-worker Randy’s (Johnny Berchtold) belabored subservience; at one point, Randy complies when pressed to eat a day-old cheeseburger. Benson proceeds to kill all the other staff opening the burger joint that morning, and so begins a day-long saga that Benson precipitates for Randy, to compel him to finally take control over his life.

There are many stops to be made; they visit Benson’s mother, Randy’s ex-girlfriend, and finally, Randy’s old teacher Miss Beard (Liza Weil), whose eye he accidentally took out after flicking an eraser as a second-grader. There are highs, and there are lows, and Carter rebounds tension like a spring-loaded yo-yo. One reversal, followed by a twist; after a while, the film’s failure to coalesce this pulsing rhythm of anxiety into a continuous build or even see it find cohesive traction in the film’s action sees its tension totally flatline. Smith is able to hold us captive, yes, but in a way that is more akin to a disinterested Uber passenger than a verifiable hostage. He’s successful in differentiating the film in form, but not in any meaningful way; the compositions are as familiar as the characters’ arcs he’s working with, and the visual texture is Colgate-commercial bland. Scenes feel simply strung together without regard for falling into dramatic inertia, and music is scored in a way that puts a metaphysical gun to your head and demands, in the voice of Benson: “Feel something now, bitch.”

Despite these things, Gallner is masterfully charismatic in the role, particularly considering how easily the arch role could have come off as contrived given the writing at play. This is likewise true of Berchtold, who opens the film bearing a mulling desperation that gives Joaquin Phoenix a run for his money in Beau is Afraid. The difference between the two films is that Randy slowly evolves beyond his sheltered context to reveal a real person, a self-contained engine driven by the mystery of being alive, a change that ultimately comes when he is finally placed within the context of the broader world via his ex-girlfriend and his ex-teacher. For all of the film’s distinctive elements, Smith’s approach to this story is ultimately in disservice to the acting ability at his disposal. Road films, reminiscent as they are of the mythic Hero’s Journey, are compelling in large part because they place their characters in shifting, discrete environments, the context of which comes to inform and evolve the development of the characters; and, in turn, our consideration of ourselves, too. But in The Passenger, so little is actually seen outside the car Smith holds us hostage in that we aren’t even able to formulate a portrait of the little town, the people, the community that has shaped these two men; we’re just there for the ride, watching as Benson repeats, and repeats, and repeats his same dictum over and over and over again, like a freshman philosophy bro high on speed and talking about Hegel. There is no threat of police pursuit, nor is there any explicit time constraint — things are just happening, without cause or effect, and more importantly, without an incitement to dream about its characters’ motivations. Ultimately, The Passenger makes itself passive to its characters’ reality, and in turn, renders us passive observers of the outcome. By the time the film roars to a halt, we don’t care that we’ve reached our destination because we fell asleep in the back a long time ago. A standout performance from Gallner doesn’t keep us awake enough to even spend time wondering if we’re there yet.

DIRECTOR: Carter Smith;  CAST: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil;  DISTRIBUTOR: MGM+STREAMING: August 4;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.