A definitive Road Movie which features some impressive stunt work, chases and crashes, as well as a storming performance from Rutger Hauer and some shocking moments and twists. One of the best underrated films of the eighties, and yet another which has suffered a remake.
C.Thomas Howell plays a Jim, young man with the job of driving a car for his company through the desert to California. One ominous, rainy night he sees a hitchhiker at the side of the road, and decides to pick him up. ‘My mother told me never to do this’ he says jokingly, but it soon becomes clear that the hiker, John Ryder is a little strange. He doesn’t talk much and soon becomes violent and sadistic. Jim grows increasingly worried and gets rid of the Hitcher when he gets the chance. This gets his heart pumping, and he drives on. However, later he finds that the Hitcher is following him, and that he is a murderer, getting picked up, killing those in the car, and moving on. He is a serial killer of anyone who picks him up. When Jim sees him in the back of car with a family he tries to warn them but they don’t realise. Later he finds their car, empty at the side of the road. Jim reports the deaths, but Ryder makes it look as if Jim is the killer, continually framing him. Jim meets a truck stop waitress, Nash who believes he is innocent and joins him on the road, but Ryder, and the cops are on his tail. Just when Jim thinks he is safe, that the cops believe him, Ryder appears and destroys everything again with an uncanny ability to kill and survive. Eventually he catches up with Jim and Nash, and kidnaps her. The cops come too late, and see that Jim was telling the truth all along. He has Nash in a slightly dangerous position and wants Jim to come with him to save her life. Soon the pair are on the road together in one final fight and chase where Jim becomes more and more violent and unhinged.
The ambiguous ending is a source of much discussion, as are many of the unanswered questions of the film. But we’re smart kids, we can figure it out. We do not need to know any motive for murder- does it matter when someone is stalking you relentlessly? This adds to the tension of the chase, and the madness to Ryder’s character. The reasons do not matter, it is the fact that we will spend time trying to work it out rather than facing the fact that someone is after us and trying to deal with it. You can search for reasons afterwards, if you must. Reasons are given for comfort, so that we have something concrete to hold on to, but we are not meant to feel any comfort here. It is a nightmare which seems to get worse as it continues, and there seems to be no escape, Hitchcockian in the way the falsely accused man is sought and tries to prove his innocence. In the end this does not matter either- all that matters from the start is what happens between Jim and John. Nash is a tragic figure, showing what can happen to the innocent when they get involved with something evil. A killer of Ryder’s nature does not care who gets in his way, by the point where he catches Nash, all he cares about is changing and hurting Jim. Does Jim become like Ryder by the end? Is he redeemed or cursed by getting revenge? This is up to us.
Some of the crashes here rank with The Road Warrior as some of the best ever filmed. They are filmed in such a way to heighten the sense of Ryder’s madness and seeming immortality, and to show the growing fear and detachment of Jim. The score is also very subtle, and the dialogue, especially between Jim and John is meant to be ambiguous and give rise to questions-Ryder is looking for a reaction and thought from Jim, as the director is from us. Hauer steals the film, giving arguably his best performance, and it remains one of the best performances in a horror movie. Howell has caused annoyance amongst critics and viewers for his performance, but he portrays the fear, naivety and excitement of a teen going out on his own for the first time. His portrayal of being wrongly accused, trying to escape the cops and Ryder, trying to save others, and eventually becoming solely interested in revenge, is perfect and could not be bettered by any other actor. Leigh as Nash is also strong and we feel sympathy for her as she is drawn deeper into the game, and she offers a softer emotional content than the two increasingly frantic men give. Say what you will of her treatment, but this was the only way Ryder could get what he wanted from Jim. A cult classic which deserves much credit and respect.
The DVD has many good features, a documentary and a couple of interesting short films. Well worth 6 quid, which is the price at the moment. A film which belongs in all movie fan’s collections, deserving of praise similar to other giants of the decade such as Raging Bull and Blade Runner.
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