Why does the classic 1980s (horror) thriller The Hitcher, directed by Robert Harmon and starring C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh, work so well? A lot of it may have to do with the performance of the actor who plays the titular character…
A car driving on a highway through a Texan desert in the middle of the night.
Behind the wheel is a young man with the name Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell), he is desperately trying to stay awake. Later on we learn that this is not his own vehicle, but he is merely transferring a rental car to the West Coast. He notices a dark tall silhouette on the side of the road, a hitchhiker standing in the rain. John spontaneously decides to give him a ride, as he sees the company of the hitcher as a welcome opportunity to fight the sleep.
“My mom told me never to do this…”
He soon regrets his decision as the hitcher (Rutger Hauer), who identifies himself as “John Ryder” (sic) turns out to be a slightly creepy guy who is quite impolite and laconic to boot. And really, after an extremely awkward verbal exchange, Jim stops and tells Ryder to get out, but the mysterious stranger, suddenly showing an unexpectedly charming side, can convince him to continue the ride together. That was a bad decision though, as a little later Ryder leisurely reveals himself to be a serial killer in the middle of a conversation. He puts a knife to Jim’s eye and forces the terrified young man to say the words “I want to die”. Fortunately, Ryder did not close the car door properly and Jim manages to kick him out. Delirious with joy to have survived, Jim rides on, feeling more alive than ever.
An ominous dolly shot moving towards Ryder standing up after his unexpected ejection with a slightly baffled yet mysteriously admiring expression on his face leaves us, the audience, suspecting that this ain’t over yet. And we are right, because in the next scene, when Jim is overtaken by a family car, he can catch a glimpse through the rear window – and to his horror he can recognize a face he was hoping never to see again…
A family slaughtered in their own car, slashed throats and countless people dying by being shot or in car accidents: The Hitcher is definitely a thriller that does not pull any punches when it comes to the depiction of violence, although it only has a few moments of actual gore.
The introduction I described above is just a setup for a cleverly constructed cat-and-mouse chase between Jim (who is later joined by Jennifer Jason Leigh as waitress Nash for a passage) and Ryder with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that at many times evokes the unhealthy urge in the audience to frantically bite their finger nails. It’s a minimalist concept played out in a maximalist way, with lots of car chases, shootouts and explosions. This is actually one of the most masterful accomplishments of that movie, namely that the unlikely marriage of the more intimate genre of the psychological thriller and the rather broad and loud subgenre of the “vehicular mayhem” -driven action movie works that well. One might say that something similar had already been accomplished in Duel (1971), but director Spielberg’s early effort follows different rules, as he never shows us the face of the villainous truck driver but stylizes the truck itself as a monster or force of nature similar to the shark in Jaws (1975), a projection surface for the hero Dennis Weaver’s psyche, while Ryder is despite his almost mythical aura -more about that below- a more faceted and most importantly, still vaguely human beast.
Eric Red is the man who is responsible for this genre blend, the writer of the screenplay who also penned demented classics like Near Dark (1987) and Blue Steel (1989). The latter one plays a little like the urban version of The Hitcher, as both works deal with a serial killer who becomes obsessed with an individual whom he deems as a worthy adversary. Unlike Ron Silver in the Jamie Lee Curtis- thriller though, whose inner demon is released when he observes an act of gun violence, Ryder has been a killer for some while when we meet him, who knows for how long. It seems like he is almost bored by his own pointless existence, as if he became so skilled at killing people and getting away with it that it does no longer offer any excitement for him. And how skilled he is: He seems to know every shortcut in the local road system, can sneak into every building without being noticed and has an incredible aim with guns and rifles. His superhuman skills are nearly surreal, but the script and direction do a good job in tricking the audience to believe they are somewhat plausible in a way. These almost godlike characteristics are certainly partly inspired by The Terminator (1984), whose influence is also visible in the shameless visual festishization of firearms, especially the iconic Franchi SPAS-12 gets some almost advertisement-like treatment by the camera. That’s still nothing compared to Blue Steel though.
An underlying “death wish theme” is emphasized by several moments in the course of the movie that show Ryder attempting to get Jim to kill him, while simultaneously unearthing Jim’s own inner demons, as if he wanted to pull him onto the “dark side”. Maybe this could be even understood as an attempt to pass the torch and make him his successor as highway killer? Is he assuming that Jim is potentially a kindred spirit underneath his harmless exterior? As the plot develops, the character of Jim is indeed approaching that of Ryder, not least because Ryder effortlessly manages to frame him for his crimes and thereby putting Jim into the role of a wanted killer on the run. Thus his fate and that of the real killer are inevitably connected, bringing them closer like in a twisted version of the Stockholm Syndrome, which culminates in some scenes bordering on homoeroticism. At one point toward the end of the film for example, Jim spits into Ryder’s face, who does not wipe the saliva away but rubs it over his skin with a dreamy expression in his eyes. Ryder’s behaviour towards Jim in general is characterized by an occasional odd tenderness interspersed with sudden violent outbursts, like a manipulative lover. The Hitcher surely is -pun not intended- giving when it comes to interpreting possible subtexts.
Wait a minute… graphic violence, glorification of guns and homoerotic subtext? Ah yeah, it’s a movie from the 80s.
On the level of craftsmanship, The Hitcher is as a whole quite a well- rounded experience: Robert Harmon’s direction is competent, the script by Red magnificent and the music by Mark Isham appropriately dark and pulsating. Everybody in front of the camera, from C. Thomas Soul Man Howell to Jennifer J. Leigh, is doing a great job but this is mainly a one-man show for Mr. Hauer. The Hitcher stands and falls with his portrayal of Ryder and he delivers with another mesmerizing performance. On the surface, the character of Ryder shares a few resemblances with his equally iconic “Roy Batty” character from Blade Runner (1982). Both have a penchant for exhibiting violent outbursts only to switch back to a weirdly tender attitude in an instant.
Yet, Ryder is radically different from Roy in every other department. While Roy is a tragic character who futilely tries to grasp a tiny shred of life before it expires, a character who is more human than human, Ryder seems to be dead behind his eyes, a devilish intelligence without soul, solely bound to keep on killing as only purpose of his existence. He comes out of nowhere (“Disneyland”, Ryder replies to a question about his origins) and it remains unclear what is driving (sic) him. The way Hauer is able to breathe life into a character that is practically a mythical non-entity, who defies any psychological reality and makes him still feel grounded and fear- inducingly real is nothing short of amazing and guarantees him a fixed place in the hall of fame of movie serial killer impersonations.
- Fun fact #1: Eric Red’s inspiration for the screenplay was the haunting “The Doors” song “Riders on the Storm”.
- Fun fact #2: Christopher Nolan is also a fan of the movie.
- Warning: Avoid the soul-, tooth- and Hauer-less sequel and remake.
Read Scott Colbert’s exclusive interview with Eric Red here!