|Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn and Billy Green Bush
“I’m going to sit here. And you’re going to drive” – John Ryder
I was quite saddened by the news that genre legend Rutger Hauer passed away on July 19th. The local papers covered his passing and mostly mentioned that he had had a memorable turn in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) but for me he will always be best remembered as John Ryder; the infamous hitcher in director Robert Harmon’s 1986 B-movie “The Hitcher”. As it happens, I just recently watched my old Italian double disc DVD edition of the film and I thought I’d put down some thoughts on the film.
Young Jim Halsey (Howell) picks up rented cars and drives them cross country to the company that rents them out. One night he gets tired while driving and picks up hitchhiker John Ryder (Hauer) who immediately makes him uncomfortable. Soon Ryder admits to having killed the previous driver who picked him up and says he’ll do the same to Jim. Jim manages to throw Ryder out of the car, but he is anything but rid of the hitchhiker. What follows is a nightmare for Jim as Ryder stalks him relentlessly and manages to frame Jim for all his crimes. A showdown between the two is inevitable.
I can’t imagine the script for the film being long as there’s not a hell of a lot of dialogue and what transpires on screen almost looks like a ghost film in many ways. It’s chocks full of coincidences and almost supernatural happenings with how Ryder can seemingly pop up out of nowhere and seems, to a point, invincible. He manages to be everywhere Jim is and it’s almost comical how Ryder’s killings look like Jim committed them and that pushes the kid dangerously close to suicidal desperation.
There’s a great scene in a diner where Ryder shows up and sits across the emotionally devasted Jim. Jim asks him why he’s doing this and Ryder puts two coins in Jim’s eyes and just says; “You’re a smart kid. You figure it out.” Then later, also a great scene, as Ryder has a victim tied between two trucks, he asks Jim, who’s in the passenger seat, to kill him as he wants to die. There’s this whole rite of passage thing (and a subtle homo-erotic nod) between these two characters that’s wholly entertaining to watch unfold but it’s never all that clear as to what kind of message is brought forth with the Ryder character. Is he real or a figment of Jim’s imagination? I very much doubt that he’s a figment of Jim’s imagination as so many things happen in the film that contradict that completely but then you’re left with way too many coincidences and simply strange things that seem highly unlikely.
In a supplement on the DVD the director, the writer and the actors seem to be unsure of who Ryder is completely so it’s no wonder we the audience aren’t sure either. In the end what happened was that “The Hitcher” ultimately wound up as a strangely atmospheric horror movie that blends great action scenes and has a road movie vibe that simply works and thanks to its supernaturally themed (or not) overtones it’s a one of a kind B-movie that continues to contribute to its long shelf life.
As said; the action scenes are quite spectacular and the film is wonderfully lensed by John Seale (“The Witness” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”) who captures wonderful images of the US’s desolate country roads. Those expecting any gore or overt violence will walk away slightly bewildered as the film is nowhere near as violent as its reputation suggests but it is quite brutal on occasion and some scenes here do pack a punch.
Howell is very good in the difficult role of Jim and has to go through all kinds of turmoil and Jason Leigh is very effective as well as the ill fated bystander who lends Jim a helping hand. But this is Hauer’s show for the most part and the Dutch actor gives a very memorable performance the (mythical?) psychotic hitchhiker.