1986 - R - 97 Mins.
|Director: Robert Harmon
|Starring: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jeffrey DeMunn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Billy Green Bush
|Review by: John Ulmer
Rutger Hauer plays a homicidal psycho traveller in "The Hitcher." His nemesis is the young C. Thomas Howell, who does some of the stupidest things I've ever seen in a thriller before. Together they form an invisible bond through their eternal strugges--the question is, by the end of the film, do we give a hoot?
Jim (Howell), who works for a car transportation company, is driving a vehicle to California. Bored and tired on a rainy night, he pulls over and gives a wandering stranger, John Ryder (Hauer), a ride ("My mother told me never to do this), in hopes of keeping him awake at the wheel. Ryder (get it?), is strange, and eventually he reveals a knife, commanding Jim to keep driving him onwards. Jim, bawling like a baby, finally manages to bump Ryder out of the car, whereupon he yells like an idiot and curses Ryder, who is rolling helplessly along the sandy highway stretch.
But Jim finds himself relentlessly haunted by Ryder, who seems bent on playing with Jim. Sometimes he wants Jim dead. Other times he does not. He frames Jim for his own murders. Then he saves Jim from a police station after he is apprehended.
The motive for the killer is unclear, though I suppose that is the purpose. Ryder carries an almost supernatural evilness to him. He's the Uncatchable Villain, the type of bad guy who can walk into a house, unseen by anyone, murder the inhabitant, and walk back out, locking the door behind him without so much as a key to do so.
But the interplay between the two is grim and unmoving. Jim's traits do not make for an attractive character--he whines and boo-hoos when held hostage, yet moments later he acts like a jerk, waving his fists in the air in triumph after losing Ryder. Okay, so it's enthusiasm. But you have to create a brave, likable character first. For example, take "Die Hard." Would we care for John McClane if he stopped in the middle of his gunfights, put his hands on his head and started crying like a child? No. Because though the everyman isn't a brave warrior, to make a movie you need a brave one-in-a-million hero. You can't rely upon a hero and give him unattractive and uninvolving charms.
Then again, part of of the problem with our hero lies in the actor portraying him, the annoying and squeaky-voiced C. Thomas Howell, whose career has also brought such other wonderful modern classics as "Red Dawn" and the worst film of the year (I haven't seen "Gigli"), "Gods and Generals." His character is just plain dumb, and often I felt like jumping into the TV and strangling him (I tried that once--it doesn't quite work). I can't put it writing the type of profoundly stupid things he does and says--you have to see it for yourself.
Another problem is the film's tension--it has none. It's not the fast-paced thriller that "Speed" was, nor the smart action extravaganza that "Die Hard" was. It's not as gripping as "Misery," which often had me pinned to my seat, and it's not as gruesome as "Silence of the Lambs." It tries to be fast-paced by quickly cutting to the next scene and the scene after that, but they don't hold together and the film becomes messy and convoluted. It tries to be smart by using John Ryder as a metaphor for death and the Grim Reaper, but in turn comes across quite dumb. There are no tension-packed scenes that leave you breathless and sweating. And it tries to become as unnerving as "Silence of the Lambs" by employing tons of blood and guts--but "Lambs" wasn't sickening because of its violence, but rather because it introduced us to the sick world of cannibalism. It psychologically affected us. How does a bucket of splattered blood psychologically affect us? Even then, the blood and carnage--by today's standards--is quite tame.
I waited for a final showdown between Jim and John, and I was let down. There is a brief showdown towards the end of the film, after John escapes from a moving police transport van and (get this) leaps out of the back onto the hood of Jim's car, crashes through the windshield, falls out again, rolls across the road, then gets up and tries to shoot him with a shotgun. Boring, stupid and way too unbelievable. I don't mind when things aren't realistic in movies, in fact, that's often what I go see them for in the first place. But when the ending betrays the film itself, and provides nothing but a really boring shootout that isn't even remotely exciting, and has been done over and over beforehand in countless other films...I'm insulted.
Hauer is by far the best actor of the film, giving his villain evil traits, but even then I found his John Ryder character bleak, dull, and not very interesting. Yeah, he's a metaphor for death incarnate, but so what? There is no character progression in this movie--by the end we have learned nothing at all. "Why are you doing this to me?" Jim asks Ryder. "You're a smart kid--figure it out." As for me, I'm still waiting for an answer to the question, John.