I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker. Not once even thought of doing it. The idea of having a complete stranger ride beside me, not knowing who they are or what they are capable of doing (or already done), terrifies me. This basic fear (and others) is at the heart of Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), a surrealistic cat and mouse game played out on the lonesome highways of Texas.
Produced by HBO Pictures and Silver Screen Partners and released by TriStar Pictures, The Hitcher was not a success at the box office, costing $6 million US and barely eking that out in returns. Reviews were mixed, everything from worthless trash to artful exploitation. The truth is somewhere in between – while the film has the veneer of Michael Mann, it plays as a discombobulated Michael Myers. The film is very open to interpretation, allowing the viewer to graft on their own – which I will in a bit.
But first, one from the road: Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell – Red Dawn) is driving a rental car from Chicago to San Diego. As he is passing through Texas in the pouring rain, he picks up a hitchhiker, John Ryder (Rutger Hauer – Ladyhawke) by the side of the road, in the hopes of some pleasant company to help him stay awake. Within moments Ryder is not only threatening Halsey, but confesses to a dismemberment that occurred to the last person that picked him up. Halsey manages to get him out of the car, but soon runs into him down the road, Ryder popping up like some psychotic Road Runner, leaving carnage in his wake and credibility by the wayside. Halsey teams up with a waitress by the name of Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh – Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and then soon finds forces tearing them apart (but mostly her). Ryder frames Halsey for all the killings, and Jim finds himself running from the law and a madman who has one simple request: He wants Jim to stop him.
This last statement could very well be why The Hitcher did not catch on with audiences, because the nagging question is: Why? Why does Ryder want Halsey to stop him? As the tension mounts, we hope all will be revealed in the endgame, but it is not to be. If The Hitcher is viewed as a horror film (and that’s why we’re here), even some simple motivation is useful for audiences – usually vengeance of some sort, just ask Myers, Krueger, Voorhees, et al – but of course not necessary. Any tale told well is exactly that – and Harmon (Nowhere to Run) and screenwriter Eric Red (Body Parts) create a kinetic, widescreen scare ride that throbs with intensity. The Hitcher is beautifully shot by John Seale, who captures the desolation and dust (and awe inspiring expanse) of the American desert. Of course, Seale would solidify his position as the King of the Landscape with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, the ultimate road movie. The music of Mark Isham (The Mist) recalls the moody menace (and beauty) of Tangerine Dream, again giving the film a Michael Mann feel – cool, disconnected, but evoking the mounting dread of Halsey’s plight.
The supporting cast acquits itself nicely, with Leigh registering but given little to do actually. There is only one mouse here, and Howell conveys the wide eyed fear well (it was kind of his thing in his early popularity). The film, however, is all Hauer’s. His steely blue eyes and hulking, yet graceful frame house a smile that turns from welcoming to menacing on a dime. It’s a riveting performance that put him on the map in North America, even though he vowed after this to never play another villain again. He really dives into the role with aplomb, hinting at truths that we, the audience are never given.
Of course, truths are not always universal, and revisiting this film has given me a chance to posit a new truth (or at least mine), onto this fascinating enigma and it goes something like this: The Hitcher is a dream in which a young man comes to terms with his homosexuality.
Let’s go back to the start. Right before Halsey picks up Ryder, he falls asleep at the wheel. The horn of an oncoming vehicle shocks him awake, and shortly thereafter he sees Ryder by the side of the road. So let’s suppose that Halsey is still asleep, and picking up Ryder is the start of the dream. When Ryder gets in, Halsey is a bundle of nervous energy, excited and scared at the same time. Ryder then (rather seductively) threatens Halsey, and coming across a roadblock, holds a knife to Halsey’s groin and pretends to the worker that they are lovers (there are phallic symbols galore here, from knives to unholstered pistols, to a close up of Halsey eating a plate of fries that offers more than he bargained for). Once Halsey manages to rid himself of Ryder, he inexplicably runs into him again and again – Texas is really big, y’all, but Ryder always manages to find him, all with the sole purpose of wanting Halsey to stop him. Again, we ask, why?
Soon after, Halsey meets Nash at the diner she works in, before fleeing from the authorities (a fugitive on the run from the police and a killer can be a strain on new relationships). Then he meets up with Ryder, authorities, Ryder, etc. All this is not to show repetitiveness, but rather the nightmare logic of this world that Halsey inhabits. He is constantly blamed, and pressured to assume responsibility for the events around him. However, there’s no possible way that, a) Ryder could frame Halsey in such a vast fashion without defying all sense of time and space, and b) the authorities would not investigate any of Halsey’s claims. Not in the real world anyways.
So, within this framework of Halsey’s dream, the nagging question of why can be answered. When the film was first released, some critics saw it as a “gay panic” button, pushed to show that Ryder himself represented homosexuality, in the wake of the widespread ignorance and fear regarding the AIDS Epidemic. However, what if Ryder represents Halsey’s fear of his true sexuality? After all, he’s excited (and a little frightened) when he first meets Ryder. Later on, Halsey has to make a choice between stopping Ryder or saving Nash (and she is the only female voice in the entire film). When Ryder is captured and taken away, Halsey knows that the only way to banish the fear is to destroy it once and for all. As the last car rolls in the hot Texas sun, and Halsey is left standing, triumphant, we should cheer not because Ryder has been defeated, but rather because Halsey has defeated his fear, and accepts himself for who he really is. And while the thought of Halsey finding peace is heartwarming, it’s not going to change my mind about picking up a Hitcher one little bit.
The Hitcher is available on DVD from HBONext: Drive-In Dust Offs: ALICE, SWEET ALICE