Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Hitcher (1986) ***1/2

Though not a road movie in the strictest definition of the term, for me The Hitcher will forever be classified under that elite domain. Set against the vast open landscape of America, the wide empty roads and bleak but beautiful backgrounds remind one of such roadies as Vanishing Point and Easy Rider. However, the similarities end there. While most road films have rebellion and freedom as their central themes, this one has fear.

 The Hitcher is a nihilistic depiction of a psychopathic killer, yet is never too violent or gory. Robert Harmon has crafted a beautiful little genre flick that eschews the gratuitious gore, faces in mirrors and cats leaping from hidden corners while still remaining atmospheric and chilling. 

The plot is simple. Jim Halsey,a young buck driving to California, picks up a hitcher on a deserted highway on a rainy night and soon finds out the man has more on his mind than simple transportation. The taciturn hitcher soon becomes voluble on his predilection for cutting off appendages and does the nice young driver know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured. Jim manages to kick the hitcher out, but our friendly thumb-waving maniac rejoins the hunt after getting picked up by another passing vehicle. The harrowing chase becomes a tornado of violence as the hitcher builds a mound of bodies. When a planted knife casts suspicion on Jim Halsey, the entire local police is mobilized for a massive manhunt. Halsey, framed and falsely accused is helped by a cute chick from a cafeteria. The ensuing car chases replete with helicopter seems to have been lifted straight out of Vanishing Point, but it works extremely well. Rutger Hauer, steely eyed, implacable and ruthlessly efficient steals the show as the hitcher. His character, John Ryder, a Ramboesque inscrutable badass whose motives are unclear is definitely one of the greatest villains of film. 

The Hitcher has a Kafkaesque feel to it, an anti-existentialist touch that suggest that we are merely pawns in a game of random chess, where every character can move anywhichwhere it pleases. The Hitcher is the only one in control; anarchy rules. One feels that his destiny is intertwined with Jim's and can only lead to the inevitably fatal conclusion. Good does triumph in the end, but at what cost? For what is humanity advantaged, if the evil man dies but the good man loses his soul. A pyrrhic victory this, like in Se7en. But to hell with the philosophizing. This is a brilliant little gem and when I say that this movie made me shit-scared of road trips and hitchhikers, you'll understand how hauntingly effective it is. All the goodwill that Jack Kerouac built for hitchhikers, this film effortlessly annihilated. 21st century traveler, you have been warned.

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