The Hitcher, 1986.
Directed by Robert Harmon.
Starring Rutger Hauer, C Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jeffrey DeMunn.
Jim is delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego when he stops to pick up a hitchhiker named John Ryder who quickly reveals himself as a serial killer who kills anyone foolish enough to pick him up. Narrowly escaping from Ryder’s clutches, Jim soon finds himself being pursued across the desert road by his new foe – a foe who will not stop until he kills his new prey.
Hitchhikers are a favorite of the horror genre with them either being the unsuspecting victim about to be picked up a passing psychopath or, more often than not, it’s the hitch-hiker who is the psychopath hoping to catch a ride with his latest victim. For me, one of the best examples of this trope comes in the form of Robert Harmon’s amazing and deeply underrated 1986 road trip horror The Hitcher.
Rutger Hauer as the psychopathic John Ryder gives, in my view, the best performance of his career (yes even better than Blade Runner).
A nearly unstoppable killing machine with a seemingly omnipresent nature, Ryder is evil incarnate. Sadistic, psychopathic but also hypnotic (it’s the eyes) and strangely charming, with Hauer portraying the character with an air of calm stillness to him that’s downright creepy. You just can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on screen and when he isn’t, you find yourself eagerly awaiting his return.
Hauer dominates the film with his performance, and while C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Jim and his reluctant accomplice Nash respectively) give fine performances in their own right, they simply can’t compete with the veteran Dutch actor with his performance casting a dark shadow over the entire film.
The other stars of the film are the stunt crew with this film essentially being one long chase across the barren desert roads of America, offering a plethora of truly impressive stunt work in the process.
The best part of the film, in my opinion, is the epic car chase that ends the film’s second act, with featuring not one car doing multiple mid-air rolls, but TWO cars doing multiple mid-air rolls at the same time in one breathtakingly beautiful display of slow motion vehicular chaos.
The scene is fast, furious and fearsome with it all culminating in a spectacularly fiery helicopter crash with an extra car flip thrown in for good measure. If you’re a fan of cinematic car chases then this is one film that you should definitely give a look at just to gaze in amazement at the sheer level of skill being displayed by the films stunt crew.
The story is a rather simple one. Hapless Jim picks up the psychopathic John Ryder and the two engage in a game of cat and mouse across the road for the entirety of the film’s 90+ minute runtime. Yet despite its simplicity, much can be read from the story and from its characters, especially with regards titular hitcher John Ryder and his motivations which are very much open to interpretation.
Ryder pursues Jim relentlessly throughout the film but what strikes me as weird is when Jim asks “what do you want?” to which Ryder calmly replies “I want you to stop me”.
One could dismiss this as typical horror villain talk but in many of their subsequent encounters Ryder again encourages Jim to “stop him”. Notice how he asks Jim to shoot him when the two are in the truck’s cabin and when Jim doesn’t comply, notice the look of disappointment on Ryder’s face and his line of “you useless…waste”.
I get the impression that Ryder is someone who desperately wants to die, but for whatever reason needs someone else to do it for him. Perhaps as a final evil act, to make someone a murderer like him or he just wants to commit as much evil as he can before he bites the bullet, Ryder is just someone who desperately wants to die.
I don’t know if this is necessarily an accurate interpretation but it is the one that I like to take with the film but it isn’t the only one, with the film offering another slightly more controversial interpretation regarding Ryder’s intentions.
When watching this film again, you might notice something that can be easily missed on a first viewing, the suggestion that Ryder’s obsession with Jim might just be romantic in nature. Pay close attention to Ryder’s actions in his first encounter with Jim, with the way he (Ryder) threatens him (Jim) with a knife and the way he touches him, with it all seeming somewhat suggestive in nature.
For a more obvious example later in the film when Ryder is apprehended by the police and Jim asks to go into the interrogation room with him. Jim offers his hand to Ryder who takes it in his own hand, Jim leans in (to spit on Ryder), but Ryder also leans in almost like he’s hoping for a kiss. Also, note the expression on his face after Jim spits at him, he seems quite happy about it.
While I don’t know if the homoerotic subtext was intentional it’s certainly an interesting and different angle from which to view the film, and it seems that some critics in the 80s thought this was the case, and they weren’t happy about it with one critic angrily labelling the film as a “nasty piece of homophobic angst for the age of AIDS”.
Regardless of how you interpret the characters or the story, The Hitcher is fucking awesome plain and simple.
Led by a chilling performance from Rutger Hauer, supported by a fast-paced and simple story, outstanding stunt work and a deeply unsettling atmosphere, The Hitcher is easily one of the greatest and most underrated action horror films of all time and definitely one of my favourites.
This is one flick you should definitely stop to pick up.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★