Reading Roger Ebert’s take on The Hitcher (along with the general critical response to the film) I was quite taken aback by the lashing Robert Harmon’s film took in the 80s. Receiving a rare zero stars from Ebert, he notes that the film was “diseased and corrupt”. His justification for such a reading is dubious at best, though superbly written – such is the case when I disagree with the critic. But given the universal agreement to the film’s poor quality, I thought it the opportunity to champion for its worth. And this goes without noting Rutger Hauer’s remarkably sinister performance – which seems to be considered the film’s saving grace.
Sinister would be an apt word to describe The Hitcher. It’s a film that does not attempt to redefine the theology of horror proposed by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but rather, instills a deeper psychological aspect to a killer-victim relationship that extends beyond Stockholm syndrome. Harmon and screenwriter Eric Red (responsible for the excellent Near Dark) establish the stakes quickly and mount the tension exponentially – Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) drives down a stretch of road. He’s heading to San Diego. But as the night comes, he becomes overwhelmed with exhaustion – he’s sleeping at the wheel. After a near-accident, he picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) – he’ll be doing his good deed and have someone to converse with to keep him awake.
Obviously, this is where the film plunges into its larger narrative purpose. But it’s the way that Harmon and Red go about constructing their narrative that is so impressive. What most critics ignored is the possibility that the film functions as an existential nightmare- any claim of corruption are unfounded when considering this is a quest that takes place within the human psyche and outside of the realm of reality. The situation itself is presented in a manner that is over-the-top and ridiculous, but horrific nonetheless. With a psychotic character like Hauer chasing after you, the film plays like No Country for Old Men (2007), with the stakes being one of adolescent growth.
C. Thomas Howell as the central victim was a stellar casting decision in that we have a youth who is very much defined by his boyishness. A film like The Outsiders (1983) has this on display, with Howell’s innocence and general helplessness being flaunted. In The Hitcher, Howell initially plays into this type – he’s naïve and hopeful. He treks to San Diego in hopes of a future that mirrors that of a Hollywood picture. What his journey in The Hitcher serves to represent is one of growth – he develops as a character that is shaped by his experiences. The trauma he encounters in the picture is one of such savage brutality, but the underlying current to all of this is that he needs to overcome and defend himself from the violence of the world. Jim Halsey’s trip from Chicago to San Diego is his nightmarish trial – his youth and innocence are brutally stripped away from him, wherein his hardened adult self takes shape.
Hauer’s existence throughout the film is one that the film teases from time to time. Throughout most of The Hitcher, Hauer and Howell tend to share the screen with only each other – Harmon makes it a point to have secondary characters leave the frame or the scene when the two are within each other’s presence. It serves to add to Hauer’s domineering aura, but begs to question the psyche of its central protagonist. The unreality of the situation lends one to believe that he is indeed living a nightmare.
I’ve omitted particular aspects of the film that I cannot defend with the same vigor. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is largely forgettable and doesn’t really offer much in terms of upping the ante for the protagonist or antagonist. Ebert uses her character as the source of corruption and moral decay for the film – she is subject to one of the greater examples of violence, but I certainly disagree with the impact that her death has on the whole picture. Her death resembles a larger allegorical pathway – Howell’s character decides between extinguishing one life for another. If anything, the scene reflects whatever remains of his youthfulness – he refuses to seek ultimate vengeance. In that, he is punished by Hauer’s satanic character. It’s a difficult allegory to embrace, particularly because Harmon and Red seem to bring in a sense of reality to the whole situation. It’s that reality that hinders my ability to embrace The Hitcher as a masterful work, but despite its final act inconsistencies, the film is remarkably entertaining and incredibly rich in detail.