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"You're A Smart Kid. Figure It Out."
Robert Harmon's The Hitcher
by Tom Whalen

I. "Why are you doing this to me?"

The story on its surface is a simple initiation tale. Youth (C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey) picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer as John Ryder) who is a killer. The two curiously bond. A young woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash) tries to help the youth falsely accused of the hitchhiker's crimes. The Hitcher, somewhat supernaturally, again and again comes to the rescue of the youth, though he also, alas, captures and kills the young woman. Finally arrested, the Hitcher escapes police custody, leading to the final confrontation between Halsey and the Hitcher, whom the youth kills.

It's in part the narrative's simplicity that allows for the polysemy and abstractness of Robert Harmon's first feature The Hitcher (1986). "So much of the film is about, you might say, figures in a landscape," Harmon says in a documentary on the 2003 Momentum DVD of the film, perhaps referencing Joseph Losey's equally abstract Figures in a Landscape (1970) based on the 1968 novel by Barry England. As with that film and novel and other Kafka-inflected works, in its abstractness The Hitcher becomes a magnet for meanings. John Ryder is a psychopath. John Ryder is the Devil. He's gay. He's Death, of course. He's also a monster, a madman, a killer from our dreams, the dead zone, or "Disneyland," as he tells the police. In short, John Ryder is a cypher, and the film a site and sight of uncertainties into whose vortex the perceiver is invited to fall. How far? As far as an image can be reduced–to silhouette, abstraction, death.

Is the film under discussion, some readers may now be wondering, the same film widely reviled by reviewers in the United States when it opened in early 1986? Yes, and it's the same film which won the Critics Award, Grand Prix, and the TF1 Special Award at the 1986 Cognac Festival du Film Policier. Why this discrepancy in the reception between the United States and Europe? Why award (or, for that matter, write on) a film about which Variety in 2004, eighteen years after it was released, says contains "extreme ultraviolence that [is] such a draw for hardcore gore hounds" (Leydon)?

The reviewers were quick to note a few of the film's antecedents (Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train [1951], Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker [1953], Laughton's The Night of the Hunter [1955], Spielberg's Duel [1971/1983]) and in a few instances even found reasons to praise the film's look, but inevitably bypassed the opportunity for reflection, preferring instead to sneer at the film's "unmotivated viciousness" (New York Times, Janet Maslin). For Michael Wilmington, writing in the Los Angeles Times, The Hitcher was

a cheap, easy rehash of Spielberg's 'Duel' and 'The Hitchhiker' [...] Nothing is original, though the core of the movie seems to be a quasi-homosexual mentor-pupil assault: Ryder is as fixated on Halsey as Bruno on Guy in Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train.' [...]

Beyond that, you can express only disgust at a movie that deals with pain and fear in such an empty, squalid way: which gives us a scene where a woman is ripped apart and focuses not on her suffering, but on the hero's dickering with the villain. [...]

The logic of the movie doesn't come from reality or nightmare; it comes from the VCR. Despite Harmon's sometimes extraordinary staging [...] it would seem amazing if a thriller this vacuous scared any but the most naive and susceptible of its intended audience. Perhaps it'll work on people terrified of loud noises. [...]

In the end, the only thing that does scare you about 'The Hitcher' is its emptiness: not the emptiness of a desert road or a fear-soaked night, but a shriveling void in the people who made it.

In The Nation, Andrew Kopkind concluded that The Hitcher was "too often disgusting [and] always real scary at the gastrointestinal level." Likewise for Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune who found it

a nauseating thriller that reaches down from the screen and defies you to stay in the theater to see what desecration of the human body it will present next.

You want to see stabbing? How about limbs being pulled from a body? Step right up, sucker, and while you're at it, please register your name at your local police station.

This is the kind of movie that may satisfy the mentally deficient, but it is more likely to drive away from moviegoing every unsuspecting adult who stumbles into it hoping for a decent thrill or two. [...]

[W]hen Jennifer Jason Leigh, the teen love interest who befriends Howell, is tied up between two trucks, and Ryder threatens to put his truck in gear, thus ripping the girl limb from limb, I thought he'd never do it. I thought Howell would kill him, and the movie would be over.

I was wrong, and I was appalled.  1 

At least Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun Times noticed that the film "begins and ends with the same sound: a match being struck, flaring into flame," although he then misidentifies the sound's source. "At the beginning of the film, the sound is made by the villain, a hitchhiker who is a mass murderer. At the end of the film, the sound is made by the hero, a young man whose life has been spared so that he can become the special victim of the hitchhiker." In fact, both matches are struck by our young hero. In line with the other reviewers, Ebert concludes that "on its own terms, this movie is diseased and corrupt," citing as evidence the scene of "the Leigh's character's death–she is tied hand and foot between two giant trucks and pulled in two–[which is] so grotesquely out of proportion with the main business of this movie that it suggests a deep sickness at the screenplay stage."

What these comments reveal, of course, is a deep-seated distaste for certain filmed images, but even more an inability to sufficiently distinguish between film and reality. Knocked out, so to speak, by their own moral rectitude, they see as literal what is only visually suggested, as if unaware of cinema's fundamental dialectic (Image A + Image B = Unfilmed Image C). Yes, the US is in many respects more culturally conservative than Europe, more moralistic, but it's also possible that the reason for the discrepancy in the response between the Cognac Festival judges and the mainstream US media is in how film is actually seen.

II. "Guess it's safe for me to smoke now, huh?"

Consider, for example, the scene of "deep sickness" that seems to have disgusted reviewers the most, the death of Nash, her torso stretched between two trucks at the truck stop parking lot of the Outpost Cafe. What is it we see at the moment she is "torn apart"? Six shots, rapid editing:

  1. Closeup of a foot (pointed frame left) as it lifts off the clutch.
  2. A low angle closeup of truck wheel moving frame right.
  3. Nash–torso, face, arms, hands-screaming.
  4. Closeup of Nash's rope-bound hands squirming.
  5. Interior of the cab where Jim Halsey screams as he moves toward the camera, his face a blur in extreme closeup.
  6. Resume low angle shot of truck as the engine revs and the enormous wheel rolls and the screen fades to black.

Two possibilities come to mind to explain the reviewers reactions to this scene: 1) the implied image dominates unconsciously their thought; 2) the story swallows form, i.e. diegesis trumps art. But surely as viewers we need not be so powerless before the image or narrative.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

Missed by the reviewers were the poetry of the sequence (the huge wheel rolling away, the fade to black) and the scene's pathos, as sorrowful as the shot in The Leopard Man (1943) when Teresa Delgado's blood seeps under the door, little if any of which remains in Dave Meyers' 2007 remake of The Hitcher, where Jim Halsey is the one stretched between trucks, his girlfriend Grace is in the cab beside Ryder, and Halsey's body is shown pulled (pop/spurt) apart.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

Also, no reviewer connected this scene of Nash stretched from truck to truck (on screen) and pulled apart (off screen) to our first view of her in the film. In that sequence, Nash's head enters from bottom frame left as she stands up in the aisle of a bus, the camera rising with her, keeping only her head in the frame. Then an exterior of the bus as it stops and the door opens. The camera tracks back as Nash steps off, turns toward the bus, her back us, and while it drives away, stretches, her arms raised above head, her hands clasped, thus more or less in the same position as in her final one when she's tied to the trucks, albeit vertical in one, horizontal in the other. This visual intimation of Nash's death is one of the many subtleties to be found in Harmon's under-observed film.

And under-heard, for The Hitcher 's aural motifs, as those of, say, Robert Culp's Hickey & Boggs (1972) or Jerzy Skolimowski's The Shout (1978), exemplify how sound can give meaning and form to film. Two aural motifs, rising out of the background of wind and car engines and Mark Isham's score, dominate the sound design of The Hitcher: the striking of matches and gunshots. The viewer sees these motifs as well, of course, but at times the sounds are commentative, heard but imposed from outside the film's present narrative reality. For example, when Halsey, a young man taking a drive-away car from Chicago to San Diego, first picks up the Hitcher one stormy night in rural Texas, the thunder we hear mimics the sound of a gun shot. In another scene, when the Hitcher tosses car keys to Jim Halsey in an abandoned garage, we hear the chhhhhh sound of a match striking though no match is seen, as if the keys moving through the dust-filled light were a lit match.

Of course such visual and aural patterns are difficult for viewers to detect in a single viewing, but they are essential to the understanding and appreciation of this underrated film. As we traverse its semantic landscape of collisions and ruptures, The Hitcher operates as a remarkable mechanism of form generating patterns and more meanings, drawing us back (aesthetically) from the abyss as surely as it (epistemologically) draw us to it. On the one hand it directs us to reduce it to abstraction or even allegory. What else can we do with a name like John Ryder? On the other hand (e.g. with the name Jim Halsey), the film establishes a (relatively) firm realistic base to which the film's psychology adheres. But then the name Nash‐well, isn't a Nash a deceased automobile? Down the center line of the continuum between the realistic and the fantastic drives The Hitcher, leaving more than a few critics and viewers befuddled in the backseat.

References

1 That Siskel had difficulty following the story's simple narrative should make us question his reliability as a moral arbiter: "Throughout the film, as he crosses the country from Chicago to San Diego, Ryder murders men, women, children . . . " Jim Halsey is traveling from Chicago to San Diego, not John Ryder.


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