Thursday, April 22, 2010

Film Review: THE HITCHER (1986, Robert Harmon)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 97 minutes.
Tag-line: "Out on the desert highway, the rule of thumb has a different meaning..."
Notable Cast or Crew: Written by Eric Red (NEAR DARK, BLUE STEEL, BODY PARTS). Starring Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn (THE BLOB '88, THE MIST). Cinematography by John Seale (WITNESS, THE FIRM, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY).
Best one-liner: "How do you like 'Shitsville'?" Well, it's way better when Rutger Hauer says it.

Well, it's Earth Day. And it only seems right- although it certainly was unplanned- for it to coincide with Rutger Hauer week, with Hauer being an outspoken advocate of animal rights and conservationism, amongst other noble aims. [In fact, as of this moment, Rutger's putting forth an effort to secure the release of unduly imprisoned New Zealander whale rights champion Captain Pete Bethune, which you should check out.] Regardless, on this Earth Day, I shall discuss a film where Rutger Hauer's mere presence leads to the wholesale destruction of half the cars and helicopters in the Southwest (maybe he wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?).

THE HITCHER flirts with genius... then it blows up some helicopters. It's as if John Woo remade THE WRONG MAN. But, in a way, that's why I like it. It's a paranoid western, a Hitchcockian road movie, a highway slasher, and a balls-out shoot 'em up. On the one hand, we have slick visuals, a spine-chilling villain, desolate locales, an encroaching aura of suspense; on the other, we've got confusing plot twists, unfathomable character motivations, the stilted offscreen death of a main character, and more car wrecks than USED CARS and THE BLUES BROTHERS put together. It's abundantly clear that Robert Harmon and Eric Red did not set out to make an art film- more likely they wanted the equivalent of an action-packed, feature length TWILIGHT ZONE episode, a pursuit at which they succeed. However, there's one variable that I don't think they could have predicted- the extent to which Rutger Hauer would transform the film into his own personal, claustrophobic, homoerotic hell ride.

Rutger Hauer is in your car. Rutger Hauer is in your face.
In fact, he's not just in your face, he's IN YOUR EYE.

He's relentless. As the enigmatic John "Ryder," he roams and rules the highways with windswept, chilly puissance. He's basically omniscient, invulnerable, and possesses the ability to POP UP RIGHT WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT. Maybe he's Satan? God? It doesn't matter. You believe every second of it. He's Roy Batty, for godssakes.

The poor sap who he's tormenting is played by C. Thomas 'Ponyboy' Howell. (Or, as some like to call him, C. Thomas 'Soul Man' Howell). Howell begins as a fresh-faced goofus who thinks it's a good idea to pick up Rutger Hauer on a dark and stormy night. He slowly transforms (by necessity) into a mucky, dust-covered, single-minded barbarian (I was reminded of Caleb's similar metamorphosis in Red's vampire western, NEAR DARK). Along the way, he meets up with disaffected waitress Jennifer Jason Leigh (fresh off of FLESH + BLOOD with Rutger)

and good-hearted but often confused cop, played by Jeffrey DeMunn. They're both excellent, and insert some much-needed pathos in a film dominated by merciless man versus man action.

This movie is ridiculous. There's more mind-boggling "cat and mouse" reversals and confrontations in the first 20 minutes than in the entirety of your average thriller. I mean, you're about to see a film of this kind and you can pretty much predict that a gas station will erupt into an inferno of blazing detonations and wondrous Hollywood FX. That's a given. Most pictures would save it for the final act. THE HITCHER lays it down at about the 23 minute mark- because that's just the sort of movie that it is.

We're even entreated to the haunting image of a car streaking away from said explosion, its hood swathed in flames. The cinematography, by John Seale, is astounding. Desert storms, deep blue skies, darkness and illumination; flaring headlamps, polarized landscapes, and warm roadside diners.

But the meat and potatoes of this film are clearly the whirling dances of death between Hauer and Howell. Emphasis on 'dances.' "There's something strange going on between the two of you," says the good-spirited Captain DeMunn. Wow, you said it. Now, apparently, C. Thomas became extremely afraid of Rutger Hauer for real during the shooting of this film. It's not hard to see why. Hauer transforms every interaction between himself and Howell into a theoretical hotbed of sadism, savagery, and primal sexual desires. Every time Hauer is near, you can tell that he's intently thinking about kissing C. Thomas, then maybe about snapping his neck afterward.

Hauer is so deeply entrenched in the character, that he knows which buttons to press to make C. Thomas actually uncomfortable. C. Thomas knows that a hateful yet passionate kiss is not is the script, but when somebody as absolutely committed as Rutger is around, da script don't mean shit.

Don't worry, C. Thomas, he was just leaning in to cryptically put pennies on your eyes... this time.

Later, C. Thomas and Rutger inexplicably hold hands.

C. Thomas diffuses the tension by spitting in Rutger's face. Rutger equalizes the power dynamic by LOVING IT.

Then he plays with the spit for a few unnerving moments- lets it roll down his fingers. Cradles it. Like a baby. Conserves it like a precious resource (for Earth Day?).

Now let's see here- who won the Oscar that year? Best Actor was Paul Newman for THE COLOR OF MONEY. I guess I'm not gonna begrudge Paul Newman anything. Best supporting actor was Michael Caine for HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. Also nominated was Dennis Hopper for HOOSIERS, because they didn't have the balls to nominate him for BLUE VELVET. Well, here's what should have happened. Cancel all the other awards, and stick Dennis Hopper and Rutger Hauer up on the stage. Let them try and creep each other out for an hour or two, or a year- however long it takes. Whoever wins gets all the awards. Who's with me?

Anyway, this movie also sets the precedent of Rutger Hauer popping out from behind cutesy things that belong to children– a teddy bear is slowly lowered to reveal....RUTGER HAUER.

More on this in a later review...

In closing... wow. Things you should take away from this: Hauer is a genius. Howell is a goofus. Actually, I just like the word 'goofus.' But always, always, always check your french fries. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Side note: From what I hear, J.D. over at Radiator Heaven has got a big 'ole appreciation of THE HITCHER in the works, so stay tuned...

EDIT: J.D.'s article can be found here.


J.D. said...

Thanks for the plug, my friend. If all goes well I should be pulling the trigger (pun intended) on it this Monday. Just putting the final touches (I sped read Hauer's memoir). This is one bad-ass chilling film, right from the get-go. My interpretation is that maybe the film is all a dream, starting from when Howell drifts off to sleep and his car drifts off into the other lane. After that, it's all a nightmare with Hauer as the omnipresent boogeyman?

I've read another interpretation which felt that it was schizophrenia and that Howell is both Halsey AND Ryder (what? a la FIGHT CLUB?), which is an interesting angle.

Anyway you look at it, the film is a powerful fevered nightmare of a story featuring a brilliant performance by Hauer (right up there with his turns in NIGHTHAWKS and BLADE RUNNER). You just can't take yours eyes off him for the entire film. It looks like he's having waaaay too much fun with the role, which is another creepy aspect of his character -- the apparent enjoyment he gets from scaring the crap out of poor Howell/Halsey.

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, the absurdity of the film and Hauer's nebulous (lack of?) motivations certainly lend themselves to some colorful theories, some of which (all of which?) may actually be intended. It's hard to say. Either way, I still love it.

I certainly look forward to your writeup. I've been thinking about springing for the Hauer memoir for a while (not to mention that the proceeds go to charity), but I'd heard a few vaguely negative responses regarding his candidness (i.e., he never really lets you IN), which I find a bit surprising given the levels of honesty and commitment I see in his performances. What's your verdict?

J.D. said...

Well, I checked Amazon, and most people complained that Hauer doesn't get into the countless shlock direct-to-video fare he's done over the years. He basically covers his big film roles (which is really why you're reading the thing), covers some of his smaller film (incidentally, he does mention the Ice-T and JUGGERS ones) and then makes a huge jump in time to BATMAN BEGINS and SIN CITY.

That being said, he is refreshingly candid (he basically says Stallone was an asshole on the set of NIGHTHAWKS) and calls 'em like he sees 'em. It's pretty light reading, you could probably burn through the book in a day but I got no complaints. Plus, I picked up a copy off of eBay for like $3 so there's that route too.

skeelo said...

Badass.Movie. I couldn't believe how well handled the first Hauer/Goofus encounter maintains reality and such dread... easily helping Hauers performance thru to the end. I think you hit the nail on the head with the it "flirts with genius... then it blows up some helicopters." But who cares. Sidenote either the diner or one of the gas stations is named "Roys." Indeed the whole movie is Roys.

Sean I like how you described Hauers scene with PonyBoys spit. You and J.D.'s conversation about Hauer is enlightening. Thanks

Sean Gill said...

Thanks for the comments and kind words, Skeelo.

And that first Hauer/Goofus encounter is so well-played, that I briefly imagined- THE HITCHER- THE STAGE PLAY. They could even get some helicopters in there like in MISS SAIGON. Alright, Broadway- go!

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

It's funny how different your review is from the one over at Radiator Heaven, but they are both excellent.

Sean some of your commentary is freakin' hysterical. "but when somebody as absolutely committed as Rutger is around, da script don't mean shit." So true. Hauer is amazing when he is on and he is on in The Hitcher.

I look forward to perusing your site and Rutger Hauer week. I enjoyed Night Hawks, Blade Runner, Split Second, The Hitcher and maybe The Osterman Weekend, but it's been awhile and thanks to both your work and J.D.s I may have to reinvestigate. Cheers.

Sean Gill said...

Thank you for the kind words, Sci-Fi Fanatic! I'm honored to have any role whatsoever in the reawakening of anyone's Rutger Hauer appreciation.

SPLIT SECOND's one of the biggies which has slipped through the cracks (I somehow haven't seen it), but I think it's next up on my Hauer chopping block.

Anonymous said...

One of the biggest things going for this film is its atmosphere. I wouldn't call it a horror film, but it's so intense and atmospheric and downright chilling that it puts full-fledged claimants to the horror genre to shame. IMO, it's one of the closest examples we've got to a full-on action-horror film. Another is THE TERMINATOR, but that's a different story and a different debate.

Sean Gill said...


You're certainly right in your observation about action-horror, and I think your comparison to THE TERMINATOR is spot on. Perhaps PREDATOR, THE RUNNING MAN, and ALIENS deserve the label as well, but I can't think of anything decent off-hand outside of the 1980s that fits the bill.

Anonymous said...

80s Rutger Hauer...yum! (Ok sorry, he's a murderous asshole in this movie but he's still smokin hot!) I only saw this movie recently but it really drew me in. It's like a misty, vague dream in parts but very real in others. He's a fantastic actor, he does bad SO good 😜 I'm kinda addicted to the movie right now, simply because I'm relatively young & this film is unique in its genre, I've never seen Rutger films before I've now seen this, Blade runner and Wanted, and I just say I like them all, but this is the one that stands out for me even more than Blade Runner. I wish Rutger had starred in many more blockbuster movies & been a bigger star because he sure had and has the talent, and the looks. Hollywood really missed out on a legendary actor. The Dutch Paul Newman, indeed!

Sean Gill said...


Glad you enjoyed! If you're starting on a Rutger kick, I highly recommend, FLESH + BLOOD, SURVIVING THE GAME, BLIND FURY, and SOLDIER OF ORANGE.