The original Hitcher has a damned die hard set of enthusiasts. People love that movie in unbelievable ways. Twenty or thirty minutes into it, I was considering joining them. The opening act of Red’s script is the very definition of caged intensity. It captures the spirit of an all-too-possible scenario beautifully, as if Red experienced this very event and then slid in one of those things from Ghostbusters, trapping all the terror into an easily manipulated box.
A never cooler Rutger Hauer is picked up by a sleepy C. Thomas Howell on the monsoon drenched side of a desolate highway. Hauer instantly lays on the creep, refusing to answer questions before casually confessing he cut off all the limbs of the last person who picked him up. Appropriately freaked out Howell doesn’t know what to do with a knife to his throat, but eventually is granted a chance of kicking the hitcher out of the door and speeding off. Things seem in the clear, until a car containing a family passes him a whiles later. Hauer is in the backseat, playing with their young child. Howell tries to warn them, but crashes his car in the process and so begins a long, slow showdown between Hauer and Howell that plays on for miles of road and dozens of dead bodies.
It is a triumphant opener that takes perfect advantage of relativity, spooling out over a good length of runtime while simultaneously feeling a faster pace than it actually is. You became instantly invested in the story and characters. But then Newton kicks in and laws of momentum slow everything down.
The highlight of the film is without question Rutger Hauer’s deathly cold performance. The man is a statue of everything to be feared about man. He brings the excellent character of the hitcher to life with blinding clarity. So much so that audience interest in seeing what he does far out weighs the fates of C. Thomas Howell or a very young, very innocent looking Jennifer Jason Leigh.
There are some top notch, at least by ’80s standards, car stunts and blood splatters. The script doesn’t require gallons of red, but layers of psychological atmosphere. The relationship between Hauer and Howell is complex, for sure, but lacks iron clad motivations on Howell’s part. Because of this, latter portions of the movie that use this relationship as a requisite for action lose a lot of their bang.
I’m not going to start up a chapter of the Eric Red fan club. I think his scripts have a lot of originality going on for them, but they tend to slump the farther they go along. The Hitcher is still a good movie, but the whole thing runs out of gas midway, coasting on its brilliant, beginning set up. The rest of the movie is certainly interesting, its just not nearly as primed as promised. It keeps an aura that anything could go wrong at any time, but the things that do go wrong continually become more and more plot convenient, leading up to a climax that requires the viewer to get out of the car and push a little.