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The Hitcher (1986)
The sky is dark hours before dawn over a lonely stretch of highway outside El Paso, Texas. Thunder rolls across the desert expanse and a match is struck. Jim Halsey takes a drag from a cigarette and drinks coffee from a thermos as he drives alone. Voices from the car radio give the slaughter cow report.
Thus begins Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher. Emerging in the mid eighties as an enigmatic and intelligent if violent thriller, The Hitcher carved a place for itself amongst the glut of dime-a-dozen slasher sequels. Harmon, who has gone on to a successful career as a director of TV crime dramas, notably the movie Gotti and the series "Homicide: Life on the Streets", paints the picture of a cross-country road trip detoured into a hellish nightmare for young Jim Halsey as portrayed by C. Thomas Howell.
Early on in his trip, Jim Halsey narrowly misses a head on collision with a truck. He’s shaken, but physically sound. Throughout the rest of the film Halsey survives one near fatal miss after the next, each leaving him more and more mentally disheveled. When Jim pulls over shortly after his first brush with death he picks up a lone hitchhiker in the rain, Rutger Hauer in the title role. “John… Ryder” he says is his name. When they pass an abandoned car, Halsey slows while Ryder forces him on, the first of many dominant acts by Ryder towards Halsey. After some awkward conversation, Ryder gleefully explains the gruesome fate he bestowed upon the abandoned car’s driver and that he is going to do exactly the same thing to Halsey. Without giving too much away, Halsey manages to force Ryder out of the moving car escaping his assailant. Soon he realizes that he has only upped the ante for Ryder and a life or death game of cat and mouse ensues.
The focus of The Hitcher is on its two central characters. A classic good/evil doppelganger theme pervades the film. Ryder is an almost spectral figure of dominance and evil to the powerless and naïve Jim Halsey. Most of the film takes place either in one car or another, and Harmon uses tight close-ups on both our protagonist and antagonist to reinforce the walled in feeling of the tight confined spaces. The tight interiors juxtapose with the backdrops of broad, empty expanse of desert, coloring Halsey with shades of the stranger in a strange land theme. Furthering Halsey’s disconnected aloneness, he attempts first to call the authorities for help, the drive-away company that arranged his trip and finally his family to find no answer and no help. Halsey is on his own with Ryder. Ryder even sets up Halsey so the police believe he is the mass murderer plaguing their highways. Ryder no longer treats Halsey as simple prey. He toys with him. He gives Halsey every chance to escape. He takes complete control over Jim’s life. He becomes the most important thing in Jim’s life as well.
The tightness of the film unravels a bit with the introduction of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash. Luckily, the romantic aspect is downplayed doesn’t interfere with the main plot line. Nash shines a ray of hope into the world of Jim Halsey but now he is given even larger stakes than his own life.
The doppelganger theme is brought full circle in a series of events that are down right Freudian. Ryder has appeared in the hotel room of Nash and Halsey. Jim, in the shower, has left Nash asleep on the bed. While Nash sleeps, Ryder takes Halsey’s place in bed. Halsey steps out of the shower to find Nash gone. Led by police to Ryder and Nash, Halsey confronts Ryder with Nash’s life swinging - literally. Ryder attempts to force Halsey’s hand to kill him. By doing so he would end Nash’s life as well. Ryder has set up a catch-22 for Halsey. No matter what course of action he takes, Nash will die and Ryder will have achieved his goal. Ironically, “gnash” means to grind together.
The final confrontation between Ryder and Halsey displays a hint of the oedipal theory of adulthood. Only by killing his parent, and taking his place can a child become an adult. Is this what Ryder had planned all along? Do we see the boy Jim Halsey become the man John Ryder in the climactic act of bloodletting? What will become of him?
A great deal of questions are raised but never answered in The Hitcher. The lack of explanation gives the movie a surreal nightmarish quality. John Ryder is the dark unknown that we don’t understand and no matter how many times we ask “why?” all we are answered with is a menacing, unflinching smile.
There are questions that don’t add up in The Hitcher. Why is Jim Halsey driving from Chicago to California via El Paso? Why does Nash run off with Jim after knowing him all of a few minutes? Why do police fire round after round of high-powered ammunition at Halsey and Nash, just missing the mark every time yet John Ryder fires a pistol with one hand out the window of a truck driving across the rough desert and downs a police chopper with one shot? Then again, why did the birds start attacking people in the Alfred Hitchcock movie? Sometimes a filmmaker forces us to just stop thinking to enjoy the movie. With all the other unanswered questions in The Hitcher, those dealing with plot holes aren’t as obvious amongst the multitude. A happy accident or a clever way to spackle cracks in a script? Another unanswered question!
A sequel exists with C. Thomas Howell returning, but I’d rather not know what happened to Jim Halsey. Watching The Hitcher has proven that sometimes the questions are more entertaining than the answers.