Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Hitcher (1986)

Country: USA

The Hitcher is a film I find incredibly difficult to be objective about. Notwithstanding the dismal and desultory remake that appeared in 2007, the original 1986 production has for some years been challenging as my favourite film of all time. In the dark days of university when I had to endure endless drinking sessions in which Eisenstein or Jean-Luc Godard were toasted, I did my best to trumpet the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Wicker Man (1973) or The Hitcher. One such evening saw a painfully serious young chap wax lyrical on the montage editing favoured during the 1920’s by a number of Soviet filmmakers. It was summer, it was hot and stuffy in the bar, but this didn’t stop the guy from wearing a scarf indoors. Anyway I digress (but what is a blog for, if not for digression?). I was left cold and unimpressed by The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and instead I pointed out a scene in The Hitcher in which C. Thomas Howell is being chased down the desolate highway by a couple of cop cars. This scene is a marvel of editing, it includes a moment in which a helicopter is shot out of the sky, and ends with the cops managing to blow the tyres out of both cars. I also mentioned a sublime low angle tracking shot which glides towards Rutger Hauer after he has been thrown out of Howell's car. The low angle giving Hauer a malignant menace that haunts the film. Academic theories are merely models to aid a certain interpretation. They cannot answer the question of what makes a film good, or why we like a film. These questions are shrouded in a veil of subjective mystery. I cannot say whether The Hitcher is a good film or not, and I’ve seen it twenty times. Yet my colleagues that evening convinced themselves it was rubbish without ever having seen it. I prefer to embrace the mystery, to accept the unknowable…I should have known then that a career in academia was probably not for me.

The Hitcher provides a number of challenges for audiences, which is a mark of its arrant non-conformity in mid 1980’s American cinema. The first dialectic of note is with genre. The film is on one level a straight forward action thriller the likes of which were commonplace in the 1980’s. It’s major distinction however is an unusual glorification and exploration of sadism and implied masochism. The Hitcher also works tremendously well as a road movie, a psychological and possibly psychosexual drama, and modern horror movie. This generic hybridity is no doubt part of the appeal too aficionado’s of cult cinema, and this is further confirmed by the iconic presence of Dutch national hero Rutger Hauer. In the more than capable hands of Hauer, psycophath John Ryder becomes one of modern cinema’s true enigmas. There is a mystery within the character that remains hidden and perplexing - this is a brave narrative strategy which has been paid off a thousand times over in the intervening years. Ryder is a sadistic mass murderer who seems to kill without motivation and totally at random. He is devoid of history and backstory, and as we discover he even lacks an identity. Does this represent lazy writing on the part of Eric Red?, not at all, this is the fundamental aspect of The Hitcher that has led to its enduring appeal.

To add a further layer of tension Ryder appears to have an almost supernatural ability to manipulate events and appear at precisely the right time for maximum effect. Ryder has a dark and terrifying omnipotence, appearing out of the haze of the afternoon sun to wreak havoc on unsuspecting individuals. Hauer is particularly magnetic, carefully creating such a dominating aura that he would forever be associated with the role. To marry such a destructive force to the beauty and openness of the American landscape is another major success of the film. The director Robert Harmon is able to manipulate the spatial possibilities of the landscape, creating a sense that at one and the same time these spaces represent freedom and imprisonment. The character of Jim Halsey played with wide eyed innocence by C. Thomas Howell is unwittingly dragged into a violent and nightmarish rites of passage - a journey that begins with smiles and excitement and ends embittered, cynical and broken. The bond that Ryder forces into existence between himself and Halsey goes far beyond conceptions of good and bad. There is an obvious homo-erotic undertone to their relationship, but more specifically it is a sense of fate and destiny. Ryder is desperate for an end to his existence, and Halsey has to perform this deed, in order to become an adult.

There are other ways in which The Hitcher is untypical. The film totally rejects a romantic subplot. The fate of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is unusually cruel, and is a very unexpected plot twist. Halsey is only allowed one relationship in the film, and its with John Ryder. Its hard to say which talent behind the film should get the lions share of the credit. Eric Red would go on to pen Near Dark (1988) and Bad Moon (1996), which were both in their own way as ingenious as The Hitcher. The subversive attitude to traditional notions of genre would appear to come from Red. But the role of landscape and the structure of the film owes a great deal to Harmon’s earlier short China Lake (1983). The film certainly has a number of plot absurdities, and sometimes the behaviour of Ryder’s character is too convenient , C Thomas Howell’s performance may divide audiences, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is barely awake. The soundtrack by Mark Isham is noticeably dated and at times inappropriate. Yet there is something in The Hitcher that defies its numerous shortcomings.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. Totally agree with you on The Hitcher Shaun, its always been at the top of my favorite horror movies. A lot has to do with Hauer's performance which is so memorable. If only more actors would put that much effort into a villain!

    I also got that vibe of The Hitchers deathwish, he obviously wants to die. The scene that best lets us know this is when he makes Howell say "!" Awesome scene!

    It feels at times like The Hitcher knows he is going to die, but he wants to push Howell's character into doing it, push him as far as he will go, which he does.

    Awesome movie, never bothered watching the straight to dvd sequel thing.

    And I HATED the remake every step of the way, I simply hated it. Nothing to like whatsoever, it was the same damn movie. The only thing that changed was that The Hitcher was no longer menacing or memorable. He was bland.

  2. Awesome film and equally awesome review Shaun! I've steered clear of the remake so far, but undoubtedly morbid curiosity will get to me sooner or later. It's just difficult to fathom Boromir stepping into Hauer's inimitable shoes.

  3. Thanks for the comments chaps - always appreciated!

    Franco - I did actually see the direct to rental sequel, I believe it starred Jake Busey as the hitchiking psycho, and some bland female lead. Its only memorable aspect is that C. Thomas Howell returned to the role of Jim Halsey, but was bumped off quite early in the proceedings.

    Liam - Yes the remake is utterly worthless, very few remakes are. Rutger Hauer is my favourite actor of all time, and although his career in the 1990's ended up in the direct to video wasteland, his performances in 'Blade Runner', 'The Hitcher', 'Soldier of Orange', 'Turkish Delight' and 'Nighthawks' assure him immortality on the celluloid highway.

  4. Great review! I love THE HITCHER. Rutger Hauer is incredible and extremely memorable as the villain. Just a chilling performance that steers me away from ever picking up a hitchhiker on the road.

    And yeah, the remake can blow me. What garbage.

  5. I have nothing much to add, except to concur that "The Hitcher" is utterly birlliant - one of those strange, perfect films that seemed to turn up occasionally throughout the mid-80s to pretty much define the notion of a no nonsense GOOD MOVIE.

    Did Robert Harmon make any other films of note, do you know? Obviously he was kicking directorial ass throughout this one, so it seems strange that aside from The Hitcher he's pretty much an unknown (to me at least). Think I'll go and type him into imdb...

  6. I couldnt agree more Fred!

    I did check Harmon out on the IMDB during my researches for this review Ben, and I think this is the exception in a rather undistinguished career. He did return to similar themes a few years back with a film called 'Highwaymen', and aside from a very bizarre turn by Colm Feore, it was of little interest.

  7. Fantastic analysis of The Hitcher! If you can believe it Shaun, I only saw it for the first time 6mo ago! Loved it though, for all of the reasons stated above. Ryder is almost the American embodiment of Stanley's Dust Devil, an unstoppable force of nature.

  8. Cheers Carl! - Its amazing you havent since this until quite recently! I think 'The Hitcher' and 'Dust Devil' would make for an awesome double bill, they complement each other very well.

  9. Amazing dark and deep film.

  10. Excellent review Shaun, I too think that the Hitcher is was one of the greatest Horror films ever made. I also agree that Hauer's performance has created one of the most iconic villians of the 20th Century. Unsure who else could of given the character some much depth back in the mid 80's, only possibly Dennis (Blue Velvet) Hopper. I also like another Hauer vehicle Wedlock.

  11. Thanks for the kind words buddy! I think it was the role that Mr. Hauer was born to play. It is arguably his most identifiable role. He took the black clad image into his advertisements for Guiness in the UK, thus cementing his eccentric screen persona. Yes WEDLOCK is an enjoyable harmless distraction, undermined somewhat though by the fact that it's central idea is stolen from THE RUNNING MAN. For reference purposes here is my personal Hauer Top 10;

    In chronological order:

    FATHERLAND (TV movie)

  12. I too enjoy is early native work such as Soldier of Orange & Turkish Delight. I see that 1983's The Osterman weekend did not make the list though!

  13. I had a tricky debate over including THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND or Nicolas Roeg's EUREKA. I think EUREKA just nudges it because of Gene Hackman's solid central performance. I find OSTERMAN to be unwieldy, in short its a narrative mess. Despite having arguably the finest assemblage of actors in any 1980's production, and Sam Peckinpah at the helm (admittedly at the lowest ebb of his powers) it just doesn't work particularly well.


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