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

III. "The slaughter of steers . . ."

As in many films, the opening of The Hitcher carries the burden of its imagery and themes, its DNA, so to speak. We begin in darkness with the sound of a match striking and a closeup of Jim Halsey lighting his cigarette inside a car. The match dies, Halsey's face, after he draws on his cigarette, only an outline in the darkness. From this closeup we cut to an extreme long shot, a mountain-scape in darkness, the top of the frame blue night sky with clouds over the sound of thunder and the title (in ominous red) THE HITCHER; at mid-frame left we see the lights of the car Halsey is driving, tiny in the distance and darkness. This shift from closeup to extreme long shot begins a pattern of visual ruptures–of bodies, cars, space, and time. Time itself will be sundered a few shots later when the velocity of the windshield wipers seen from outside the car is faster than when seen from within.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

The motif of Halsey's lowering his head begins in the fourth shot: Halsey raises his tired head a little, then nods down and repeats this gesture twice more. A few shots later, after a Volkswagen passes him, he nods again, closes his eyes, only to jerk his head up, and we cut to an exterior of his car in medium long shot. "It's four-fifteen on a Saturday morning [back to Halsey drinking from a thermos] in El Paso town," the announcer says, "the station all El Paso listens to. The slaughter of steers . . ." "Slaughter" is the key word here, and with it we also hear low thunder as we cut to a landscape shot of a black mountain against a dark blue sky capped with smoke-like clouds. A lightning flash cracks in the sky like a gunshot. The key aural motifs of the striking of a match and a gunshot have now been put into play.

As the radio continues its cattle report, Halsey screws the lid back on his thermos. Rain gathers on his window frame right. The windshield wipers come on, slashing (in two-dimensional space) over Halsey's face. "Slaughter of cattle . . ." Back to the car's interior: from Halsey's POV we see through the window the road heading into a gray horizon. But something isn't right in the shot, something's out of sync: the windshield wipers–noticeably, surprisingly, unrealistically-are moving faster than in the previous shot from outside the car. This temporal disruption in the universe of The Hitcher is further emphasized when we shift back to the car's exterior and see the wipers moving again at their original velocity. Now, as the wipers hypnotically slash across the window and Halsey's face, he nods again, deeper, then all the way down. His eyes close. Our young hero has fallen asleep at the wheel.

The somber music, the night rain, alone on the road–we know we're in a horror film, and among that genre's cues is the possibility that once a character falls asleep, all that follows may be dream, a vision, an allegory. The Hitcher is, yes, a kind of allegory and it may be a vision, but it's not a dream film. Jim Halsey won't be able to escape his reality that easily.

I need to block out the next sequence carefully, for in its ambiguous outcome lies the rupture or bifurcation upon which part of my reading depends.

  1. Darkness inside the car. Closeup right profile of Halsey, only a tip of his hair, the bridge of his nose, and the indenture of the upper lip faintly illuminated, until light comes up on his sleeping face.
  2. View straight out windshield, truck lights against the mountain-scape coming his way. The eighteen-wheeler blows its horns.
  3. When its lights are between the diagonal blades, we cut to Halsey jerking his head back (frame left) and then quickly forward.
  4. Closeup of the six truck lights as the rig blares toward the camera.
  5. Back to Halsey in car swerving out of way.
  6. Exterior shot from behind the car as it jerks to the right of the oncoming truck, which blurs past in the next shot.
  7. Long shot of black mountains, at top of the frame the deep blue sky, and at the bottom the rig (left) and car (right) splitting away from each other.

What's happened here? The youth in the car has narrowly escaped being hit head on. But in the jerking back of Halsey, the blare of the horns, the blinding light, and the positioning of the vehicles from shot to shot, it's as if the more fantastic possibility is that he has escaped the collision. At what would have been the moment of impact, we again switch to an exterior shot. Is it possible that in the alternate universe between shots 4 and 5, Jim Halsey met his end in a head-on collision? Whether this moment constitutes a possible bifurcation in the universe of The Hitcher and whether this can be supported on the visual, as opposed to theoretical or extra-contextual plane, this essay hopes to establish.

What these first three minutes of the film incontestably introduce are The Hitcher's basic motifs. The match. The road. The desert. Extreme darkness/extreme light. Extreme closeups/extreme long shots. The sounds of gun shots, matches being struck, passing cars. Rips in the temporal and spatial fabric. Slaughter in the offing. Nodding off.

And we've yet to meet the film's eponymous figure.

IV. "Bless you."

Where does the Hitcher come from? Literally, the roadside. Where will we last see him? Falling off the side of the road. In a sense the Hitcher has no name. When asked by Halsey what his name is, he says, hesitantly, "John . . . Ryder," which could be any old Jack-on-the-road cypher. He has no history, no police record, no identification. Yet the Hitcher is not entirely a Kafkaesque invasion from the realm of the unknowable, an avatar of the absent cause. The rips in cinematic visual space (closeup to long shot) and in time (the different speeds of the wipers) after the near collision, may allow for an extra-dimensional intrusion. Could it be that at the moment before (of?) the collision, the universe itself has in some way bifurcated, the road divided, Halsey's life altered despite (because of?) a collision? A young man in a storm is almost killed on the highway. He swerves out of the way. Or he doesn't. He doesn't die or he does? Regardless, the Hitcher appears immediately afterwards as if formed from the dynamics of this rupture in the young man's world.

After the near collision, Halsey stubs out his cigarette. When we see him through the windshield from outside the car, the windshield wipers move at a rate of one wipe (up, down) per second. Halsey sees something out the window. Back to interior of car (camera in back seat), and through the front windshield we see in the rain and mist a hitchhiker in a dark coat. But now the wipers' rate of speed is one wipe every two seconds. The temporal disruption registers as just that: not a slow motion shot, an instance of the film's baring its device, but a tear in the temporal fabric. And into this tear arrives a metaphysical avatar.

Our first encounter with the Hitcher is as mysterious as his provenance. Foregrounded and in focus at the left of the frame, arm out, thumb up, the Hitcher stands with his back to the camera, rain dripping from his coat. From Halsey's POV we see a blurred view of the Hitcher through the rectangular frame of the back window (like a movie screen, or more exactly a drive-in screen), his dark figure against the mountains and the sky. Rain, the sound of the tires on the wet road, and the livestock report are still on the soundtrack. On "livestock" we cut to an exterior low angle shot, the car taking up the right half of frame, the road the bottom of the frame, left frame a dark mound, the sky at the top. And at this point, right after the edit we hear a loud gun shot, as the car comes to a stop. Three more nondiegetic gun shots are heard when the Hitcher knocks on the glass for Halsey to unlock the passenger door. Halsey reaches over and, bright-eyed and as naive as the night is long, delivers youth's most famous and fateful last words: "My mother told me never to do this." As the Hitcher climbs into the car, his dark shape for a moment effaces Halsey.

There is a practical reason, of course, for Halsey to reject his mother's advice. After his near-death experience, he can use the company, someone who'll help him stay awake. We're not sure yet if the Hitcher is an archetypal irruption, a metaphysical monster like, say, Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, but in his long dark coat, it's not hard to imagine the Hitcher as the projection of a young man on a late-night desert highway who's just had the living daylights scared out of him. And, as we all know, what we project from ourselves as often as not is a mirror.

Again and again this figure of mysterious provenance and at times seemingly supernatural powers will come to Halsey's rescue. Among his wild talents is his ability to hear or sense Halsey behind the soundproof glass in a police station. One visual representation of this strange bond between them occurs when the Hitcher, in the police wagon, looks up at the ceiling, his face in closeup facing screen right. Darkness surrounds him, except for the blue sky out the grid-patterned window. Ryder, face raised, eyes closed, half smiles, as if he's just made a wish or prayer. The next shot, as if from Ryder's POV, is of blackness, from which, at the top edge of frame right a gun in a hand (Ryder's ?) descends diagonally down the screen, its bullet chamber opened, then it's snapped shut, and the camera follows the hand with gun up to reveal Jim Halsey wiping his forehead with the back of the hand holding the gun. Has Ryder's prayer been answered in this visual linking of the two? Has he projected the gun into Halsey's hand?

What most binds these two "sweethearts" together (a road worker calls them this) is what the Hitcher asks of Halsey when they first meet. "I want you to stop me." How, since Ryder is holding the knife to Halsey's throat? "Say, 'I want to die.'" This Halsey can't do. He shoves him out of the car and whoops triumphantly. But soon enough he'll encounter him again, this time from behind the head of a child's teddy bear at the back window of a family's station wagon. The family will be slaughtered, off screen; the only byproduct of the carnage we see is Halsey vomiting after he (not we) has looked into the station wagon.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

"Bless you," Halsey tells the Hitcher when the latter sneezes moments after entering the car, and in the sense that John Ryder is Jim Halsey's teacher, he deserves to be blessed. What is it he teaches Halsey? To fight for his life or for his death? "Why are you doing this to me?" Halsey pleads with the Hitcher across a table in a diner. The Hitcher licks something and places it on Halsey's face, repeats the action. "You're a smart kid. Figure it out." On each of Halsey's eyes the Hitcher has placed a penny.

V. "We must look to Nature where the spirit is replenished daily."

Dust, wind, fire: these are the dominant elements of The Hitcher. Is it hot or cold? We're in the desert, but it's not hot, unless you're in a fire. Most of the characters wear sweaters or warm coats, though perhaps as much to protect them from the wind and sand as from the cold. And the fourth element? After Halsey shoves Ryder out the door into the rain, we won't have rain again, though Halsey will clean himself up in the restroom of the Longhorn Cafe and take a shower at a motel before the Hitcher captures and kills Nash.

Dust and wind. Dust storms. Dust to dust. Halsey steps out of an abandoned garage into a dust storm and sees the Hitcher hitching another ride. After Halsey agrees to let the two policemen whose car he has hijacked take him in to Captain Esteridge (Jeffrey DeMunn), the Hitcher appears behind them in a truck and kills the two cops. With all hope now seemingly lost, Halsey runs off into the desert, and drops to his knees, as in prayer, the gun in both his hands held beneath his chin. But he can't kill himself. He lowers his head, lays down the gun, prostrates himself (face to ground), then grabs a handful of dirt and rubs it in his hair. When near the end Halsey drives Captain Esteridge's vehicle into the Hitcher, John Ryder is knocked into the sand on the side of the road, his breath puffing up dust a few times, then nothing, only briefly the sound of a fly buzzing. (Commentative? We see no flies. Nor is he dead.) It's a desiccated universe, and highly flammable.

Fire is the film's primal cause. From out of the darkness a match is struck and the film begins. As with the gun shots that are a part of nature (a shot stands in for thunder), of dream (in a dream Halsey flashbacks to the Hitcher's knocking at the car window which we hear as gun shots), and of reality (plenty of fire power in use in this movie), matches and fire pervade the film, from first shot to last and everywhere in between. After the incendiary scene at a gas station when the Hitcher, having knocked down a few gas pumps with a truck, lights a match and drops it into the spilled gasoline, sending a gasoline-soaked Halsey rushing to his car, Halsey seeks help from Nash at the Longhorn Cafe not yet open for the day's business. "You stink of gasoline," she says after letting him in, Halsey's back in a black jacket effacing Nash on the word "gasoline." After he's washed up and is eating the cheeseburger and fries Nash has prepared for him (from the french fries he will draw a severed finger he almost eats  2),  Nash pulls out a cigarette and says, "Guess it's safe for me to smoke now, huh?" Perhaps not, especially in a world where fire has permeated into the metaphysical or at least synesthetic zone, as when a set of car keys tossed through the dust-filled air of an old garage makes the chhhhhhh sound of a match being struck.

In its elemental nature, the universe of The Hitcher seems more metaphysical than physical. (That there are no deserts in Texas quite like the ones seen here constitutes another crack in the film's realistic plane.  3)  In the context of the film's otherworldliness, a line as simple as "So where you headed?" (his question to Ryder when they're in the car together) easily takes on metaphysical significance. After Halsey has showered in the motel and is tying his shoes, he hears the television come on. (Earlier he had accidentally turned it on to a Western: "Let's herd 'em out!") On the TV (off screen) a minister is concluding his show. "The apostle Paul told us to look within ourselves for the very spirit of faith. We must look to Nature where the spirit is replenished daily. I'm Reverend Hollis Maxwell reminding you to visit a church this Sunday." Then Channel 3 KCIK television signs off.

Much of the film's dialogue operates both on the realistic and metaphysical levels. But it's not easy explaining the metaphysical to physical beings. Nash thinks she can make others understand why she's on the run with a suspected killer who's being shadowed by the real killer. "I can explain it," she tells Halsey in the motel, when she wants to phone her father. "It's not that simple," Halsey replies. "I've already tried." If it were, Nash, a good person with good intentions who does only good things, wouldn't be tied between two trucks and torn apart.

The two of them are sitting in a motel bed at night, safe for the moment, so they believe, from the Hitcher and the police. When she says she can explain to her father (i.e. to the "normal" world) what's happening, we see her in a head shot, left profile, at the right of the frame. Behind her and in the center of the frame, is a rectangle of darkness, the wall to the left and bottom of it colored a strange green. "I'm scared," she says. Reverse angle: Halsey's face to the camera, the top of the bed board at the back of his neck, window shutters and curtains behind him, and through the slats light comes on and gets brighter as we hear a car or truck passing outside–a visual and aural echo of the eighteen-wheeler with which he almost collided at journey's beginning. Bright illumination through the slats; then as it fades, Halsey says, "Me, too." Sad face of Nash in darkness. Back to Halsey, the lights behind him an unearthly red that blinks out. He puts a cigarette in his mouth (we're now back to a two-shot), lights it with a match and offers it to Nash–the condemned's last smoke.

VI. "Crying isn't going to help."

Near collisions, glancing collisions, direct, head on. Of the many in the film none is more spectacular than the "head-on" collision when the Hitcher dives from the back of the police van, inside which are the cops he's just killed. Standing in the open doorway at the back of the van, the Hitcher springs off and crashes head-first through the windshield of the oncoming police truck. From the front seat where he lands covered in glass, he looks up at Halsey and says, "Hi, kid."

Cars collide with cars, trucks with cars, trucks with trucks, bodies with both trucks and cars. Bullets, too, with vehicles and bodies. A collision is a coming together and a sundering, a transfer of particle energies. And sometimes they may produce a bifurcation. A night storm. Blazing headlights. A split second longer and you might have . . . . Then a hitchhiker appears. But what kind of world is this now? Not the one it once was. Something has changed, the universe shifted at its core, because now a man wants you to say "I want to die." And then he'll likely kill you. So you shove him out of the car, but moments later he's in a station wagon with a family he's going to slaughter. And why was that family hauling a boat with them when all there is is desert?

The Hitcher moves about in space (off screen) in mysterious ways. It seems as if he can kill anything that gets in his way. Then why doesn't he kill Halsey? All he wants, he says, is for Halsey to say I want to die. But in fact, as the film progresses, he wants more than that. But what exactly? "You're a smart kid. Figure it out." O.K. What, then, is the answer to the question Halsey cries out to Ryder, "Why are you doing this to me?" Whatever it is, it has to be about death, because now the Hitcher isn't asking him to say "I want to die," but instead to kill him. "You know what to do." Confronted with the dilemma of whether to shoot the Hitcher and suffer the death of Nash when Ryder's foot lifts off the clutch or not kill the Hitcher and watch him lift his foot off the clutch anyway, Halsey only screams and cries. This isn't good enough for John Ryder. He hasn't given up on his pupil yet and will attack him a final time on the road, open his arms to the police truck Halsey's driving and shout, "Come on!" begging Halsey to smash him. What's going on? What happened to "I want to die"? Somewhere along the journey, it's transferred to the wish to kill, just as a transference or fusion of identities between the Hitcher and Halsey seems to occur when Halsey answers for the Hitcher as the police interrogator asks the Hitcher his name and on the other side of the soundproof glass Halsey answers in a whisper "John Ryder" which the Hitcher hears.

What a strange road The Hitcher takes us down. After Halsey shoots Ryder night falls within the suture of a cut.

References

2 Not only reviewers like Siskel and Kopkind were affected by this severed finger on the "gastrointestinal level"; Halsey, too, rushes to the toilet when he sees it. More disturbing and disruptive, however, is the scene's irreality. On the realistic level it's unlikely Ryder could have known Halsey would be in the diner or that Ryder would have had time to place the finger in the fries.
3 On the Special Edition DVD Harmon states that the desert locations were the Valley of Fire, outside Las Vegas, and the deserts outside Barstow and El Centro.


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