C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey
Rutger Hauer as John Ryder
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash
There is a clue to what this movie’s all about in a scene at the very beginning where Jim Halsey (C Thomas Howell) asks John Ryder aka “the hitcher” (Rutger Hauer) “what do you want?” as Ryder holds a flickknife blade to his eye. Ryder replies “I want you to stop me.”
Now some pedants would argue that “The Hitcher” doesn’t constitute a “horror” movie, but they don’t know what they are talking about. This is one of the best kinds of horror – the kind that messes with your head. Robert Harmon directed a tidy little thriller written by Eric Red (who recently penned the remake) that is simple and effective. Mark Isham’s score is subdued and creepy, perfectly suited to the amazingly eerie Death Valley settings shot by John Seale. Interestingly, Harmon made a film very similar to this (though nowhere near as effective) starring Jim Caviezel, “Highwaymen”, in 2002.
Jim is driving a Caddy cross country USA. It’s not his car, it’s a “driveaway”, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is Jim doesn’t have a great deal of common sense. It’s rainy. It’s dark. It’s the middle of f*cking nowhere, and he stops to pick up a hitchhiker.
I never realized I was a Rutger Hauer fan until it dawned on me that I have about 6 films he’s in. Anyway, in this one, he gets in the car followed by the cold air of barely contained menace. When, after some strange and eerie small talk, he casually tells Jim that he severed the extremities of a VW driver a couple miles back and he’s going to do the same thing to Jim, you believe he is capable of doing just that.
After Jim manages to push him out of the vehicle, we see him slowly get to his feet against the just-rising sun. This is Ryder’s game, getting picked up on desolate highways, killing whoever gave him a ride, then getting out and doing it all over again to the next unwitting driver. But Jim has ruined it. He pushed Ryder out before he could finish. Now, Ryder comes up with a new game. And Jim is the unwilling player.
Ryder watches the car disappear along the highway. He’s marked Jim. Jim is a dead man. Or at least that’s what we think. But Ryder doesn’t want to kill. In fact, he gets a perfect opportunity to a few minutes later in the film, and several more times throughout the 86 minutes. Yet he doesn’t take it. In the process of killing a few innocents, and setting Jim up to take the fall, Ryder is almost “grooming” Jim, trying to inspire him to muster the cajones to do what he must: to STOP Ryder.
The film stretches plausibility a number of times in the ensuing “cat and mouse” game Ryder and Jim play out against the backdrop of the lonely highways of outback USA. No-one is a match for Ryder – the highway patrol, the sheriff, the… um, other sheriff, his deputies, even a helicopter can’t dent him. He brings it down with a couple well aimed rounds. He also manages to appear and disappear like a ghost, even through locked doorways and past fully conscious people. And this all would suck, if it wasn’t for the great performances by the two leads. Hauer is perfect as the unhinged Ryder. His eyes have just the right amount of crazy. And C Thomas Howell is believable as the kid who got more than he bargained for. In fact, C Thomas Howell states he was actually afraid of Rutger a number of times, the actor got so intense.
Jennifer Jason Leigh makes a few brief appearances as Nash, a waitress at a highway diner who takes to Jim and tries to help him (leading to a few great car chases and crashes later), and she’s a underrated actor who delivers, but at it’s core this is a two-man drama. It’s this one on one aspect I really like about “The Hitcher”. Yes, we know how it’s going to play out. But the fun is watching Ryder taunt, and Jim squirm. Then it’s fun to see the tables turned, though Ryder hardly squirms – he knows this is how it would go down. He welcomes death in these, the film’s haunting last moments. It’s just the two of them, on a lonely stretch of highway. With a shotgun leveled at him, Ryder makes no move to get out of the way. This is just the way it had to be. By his own admission, Ryder is “tired.” He wants this to be over. Who knows, maybe he’s been killing people for a while, his mental state steadily deteriorating, and now he wants it to end. Jim stood up to him at the start, and maybe Ryder figured he’d found the perfect adversary, the only one who could ride this out with him to the grisly end. Ryder’s orchestrated chaos has played out right down to this very moment. Game over.