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

VII. "So where you headed?"

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

The road is the film's principal conceit. It's everywhere, even inside diners and police stations. In one of several examples of moments when the film internalizes the road image, Halsey runs between the rows of huge eighteen-wheelers parked outside the Outpost Cafe. Shining behind him are the lights of a truck, another visual echo of the near collision with which the film opens.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

Other examples include the counter in the Longhorn Cafe where Nash works seen at "road angle"; the center road stripe on the floor of the police station where Halsey is being held; the rise he kneels down on, with gun under chin, a "road" stretching behind him to the horizon; and in the ethereal garage (birds flutter up when Halsey enters it) where a car hangs in the air and a One-Way sign is on a wall, its arrow pointing upward.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

The most striking example of the road conceit is the one that transfers the road to the body. After Ryder has been pushed out of Halsey's car, the camera, close to the ground, dollies along the center stripe and tilts up as the Hitcher rises until we see him from an extreme low angle, the road off screen, only the sky above him filled with dark clouds. But within this single shot, the road has transferred from earth to body (or spirit), from reality to metaphor, since the torso of the Hitcher, with his black coat, the line of his shirt buttons, and head, have replaced the visual plane the road was on.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

Handcuffed in the back of the police van, this metaphysical monster, who would prefer to be riding with Halsey, hums "Daisy Bell" ("Daisy, Daisy . . . you'll look sweet upon a seat/Of a bicycle built for two").  4  In the next shot he will look up at the ceiling and receive, in cinematic (not realistic) space, Halsey's gun. "Come on," Halsey says, trying to start the car so he can run over his apparent nemesis. "Come on," Ryder says when he stands in front of the police truck, offering himself up to Halsey.

But it's difficult, as horror films from King Kong (1933) and before and after have taught us, to kill a metaphysical monster. How monstrous John Ryder actually is, the film's abstractness (figures in a landscape) puts in question. Like Charon, Ryder guides Jim Halsey across Acheron ("Sad Acheron of sorrow, black and deep") and perhaps across Phlegethon as well ("fierce Phlegeton, / Whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage" [Paradise Lost]). Hasn't he been giving Halsey good advice all along? "Crying isn't going to help." "Say, 'I want to die.'" "You know what to do. Now do it. Squeeze the trigger."

But Halsey doesn't, not yet. Not when he knows that Nash will die if he . . . , but then she'll die even if . . . And all Halsey can do is cry. "Yeah. Sure. So what?" the Hitcher replies, when Halsey says that Ryder will be caught. Nash will die if Halsey pulls the trigger of the gun whose barrel the Hitcher has placed at his own temple. But Halsey can't pull the trigger and the Hitcher takes the gun from him and, in despair and disgust, says, "God. (pause) You useless (pause) waste." And the engine revs, the wheel rolls, and Nash (off screen) is ripped apart.

Halsey's development is from a naive young man ("My mother told me never to do this") to a near-suicide to someone who has finally learned that crying really doesn't help. But one senses that his dawning recognition is not so much about himself as it is about who and what John Ryder is, this elemental force with which he must contend. Of course the Hitcher isn't dead as he lies in the dust on the side of the road after he's been struck by the police car. How could he be? In fact, how can he die at all?

Halsey picks up the Hitcher's gun. From a low angle, the sun forms an aureole in Halsey's hair, as he looks down on the Hitcher. Then a ground level shot of Halsey's right leg and foot, the gun caressing Ryder's hair. Halsey turns and walks toward the camera and as he approaches it, Ryder rises behind him from the bottom of the screen, and tosses his handcuffs on the road. From the Hitcher (torso, head shot) comes a breathy laugh, a bloody grin. Match on Halsey as he turns and faces the camera. When he fires we see a side view of Ryder in his dark coat, rivulets of blood spraying from his chest and exploded back. Then in medium shot he catches another round in the stomach and falls backward toward the desert in shallow focus behind him. Cut to low-angle shot looking up at Ryder's back as he stumbles backward, then to Halsey shooting the gun, then to a long shot of the desert landscape, mountains in the distance, the truck, Halsey and the Hitcher, tiny in the middle distance. As Halsey shoots again, the small dark form that is the Hitcher vanishes behind a slope. ("Ryder disappears into the desert from whence he came," remarks The Hitcher's scriptwriter Eric Red on the Special Edtion DVD.) On this long shot we hold for 18", as if awaiting another resurrection, which never comes.

VIII. "I don't want to die!"

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

If we assume, as I've suggested as a legitimate possibility (or alternate reality), that at the moment of the near-collision at the film's beginning Halsey's life bifurcates and from the bifurcation the force we know as the Hitcher comes, then Jim Halsey, in one sense, has died in a car crash and what has followed has been the trials he's faced on the first leg of an afterlife journey. The Hitcher, as I said earlier, isn't a dream film, but more a death film, a crossing-over story. Jim Halsey, our smart kid, has a hard time figuring it out. So do we. But clues abound, from first shot to last, motif after motif, sound, sight, atmosphere. Every sound of a striking match reminds us of the first image, every gun shot echoes the gun shot/thunder we hear when the Hitcher approaches Halsey's car. And the headlights of the oncoming rig jacklight Halsey at every nod of his head–when he cleans up in the bathroom at the Longhorn Cafe; in the booth at Roy's Motel and Cafe when he tilts his head down to release the pennies Ryder has put on his eyes; in the desert as he contemplates shooting himself.

Only four words Ryder asks Jim Halsey to say: "I want to die." But he can't say them. "I don't want to die!" he shouts, shoving the Hitcher out the door. Yet death is general all over this Texas desert–a man in a Volkswagen; a family in a car (the Hitcher, playing with the girl in the back of the station wagon, tells the child to "kill him" as she shoots her toy gun at Halsey driving along beside them); several officers at a rural Ranger station; numerous other officers along the road (the Hitcher shoots down a helicopter, officers accidentally shoot at one another causing their cars to crash); Nash; officers in a police transport van. The Hitcher is a force from beyond the real, and the lesson Halsey must learn is that only he can stop it.

What's left for Jim Halsey after the Hitcher has disappeared down the slope? Narratively–with no girl to go back to, no car to drive on to San Diego-not much. Nor can we imagine Captain Esteridge's wanting to press charges against Halsey for taking his vehicle. The tone and texture and logic of the film won't allow it. On the visual plane he's left with even less–a silhouette, a few frames, a fade to black.

In the penultimate shot Halsey doesn't enter the vehicle, but instead comes to the open door on the driver's side, puts his elbows down at the open window and closes the door. We see him from the passenger side (the Hitcher's former position) framed in the window, behind him the desert mountains and sky in late afternoon light. The top of the frame (the ceiling of the vehicle) is weighted with darkness. Halsey drops his head only a fraction.

Robert Harmon's 'The Hitcher'.

Final shot: Suddenly it's late dusk (another temporal rupture), the sky umber on the horizon. The ground is dark, as is the silhouette of the police truck and Halsey in medium long shot still leaning at the window. The vehicle and Halsey stand on the horizon line, the image without depth, two-dimensional. As the credits come up from bottom right, Halsey lifts his head, then lowers it a fraction, lowers it further. We hear (more than we see) the striking of a match. He flicks his left arm backward (tossing the match away), lowers his forehead into his right hand, then runs his hand through his hair and turns toward the camera, his figure still only blackness. The figure completes its turn, Halsey's back against the car door. He is now facing right, the same direction as at the beginning of the film. He takes a drag from the cigarette. He lowers his head. He lowers his head further. The sky deepens, darkens. The image fades to black.

According to Andrew Kopkind, "The philosophical McGuffin here is that Death struggles with Life over principles, not just bodies. The hitcher wants the driver to kill him and thus accept the death principle; Jim tries to reaffirm the life instinct by nonviolent escape. It goes without saying that this is no contest." But this reduction to allegory seems inadequate to the complexity of Halsey and Ryder's relationship. Might not the struggle here be between different death principles, as much as death versus life? Kopkind, of course, like the majority of the film's reviewers, avoided further reflection. "But flee, philosophy! This is a movie full of spatter and suspense, both provided in excess and applied with much mischievous relish. The genre requires a measure of adolescent enthusiasm for its appreciation, rather like a heavy metal song cycle, as it moves from murder to car crash to explosion at a jaunty pace." I can grant a certain mischievousness to the film (the finger in the french fries; Rutger Hauer's Ryder the ultimate mischief maker), as well as relish its substantial web of motifs, but the pacing of The Hitcher is anything but "jaunty." Sadness and isolation are what dominate here, undermining for me any chance to respond with "adolescent enthusiasm" to Harmon's first feature.

If my reading (hardly definitive) of The Hitcher as a journey through a symbolic afterlife landscape is also reductive, so is the film's final image. In its two-dimensionality–Halsey and the vehicle reduced to silhouettes, depth pulled–the cinematographic space of the last shot has become purely abstract. The nodding of the head closes the film's formal patterning with an inescapable finality. This figure in a landscape is going nowhere. It has nowhere left to go.

Contributor's Note
Tom Whalen's nonfiction has appeared in Bookforum, Film Quarterly, Literature/Film Quarterly, The Missouri Review, Northwest Review, Studies in Short Fiction, The Wallace Stevens Journal, and Witness. The Birth of Death and Other Comedies: The Novels of Russell H. Greenan is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive in Spring 2011.


4 HAL, the computer in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), another metaphysical film, also sings it.

Works Cited

  • Ebert, Roger. "The Hitcher. " Chicago Sun Times 21 Feb. 1986: available
  • The Hitcher. Dir. Robert Harmon. Screenplay by Eric Red. HBO Pictures, 1986. DVD Momentum, 2003.
  • Kopkind, Andrew. "Films. " The Nation 29 Mr. 1986: 467-468.
  • Leydon, Joe. Variety 16 - 22 Feb. 2004: 38.
  • Maslin, Janet. "'The Hitcher,' Terror on the Highways. " The New York Times 21 Feb. 1986: C 20.
  • Siskel, Gene. "Thumbs Down on a Ride with 'Hitcher.'" Chicago Tribune 24 Feb. 1986: 3.
  • Wilmington, Michael. "Hitcher Takes Audience for a Ride. " Los Angeles Times 21 Feb. 1986: 23.

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