“You know, you don’t have to do this,” a concerned sheriff, one of a veritable parade of local police officers, tells Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) at the end of The Hitcher. By that point, after having been worked over thoroughly and completely by sadistic drifter John Ryder (Rutger Hauer, bogeyman par excellence), Halsey’s answer has to be, “Yes, I do.” Over the course of the film, Ryder has goaded, threatened and assaulted Halsey and murdered swaths of cops to prove his point, not to mention removed his last vestige of humanity by murdering Nash (a jail-bait age Jennifer Jason Leigh, no less), Halsey’s potential love interest. Ryder has beaten Halsey by that point and no amount of cathartic bloodshed can change that. When my colleague Ryan Stewart told me that the film “makes The Road look like Mamma Mia!,” he wasn’t kidding.
In his unrelenting brutality, Ryder resembles a bleak executioner straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, more than likely an Anglo-Saxon cousin to Anton Chigurh. We meet him right after the opening credit sequence, where Halsey nearly falls asleep at the wheel of his Driveaway rental car for want of excitement in his life. Ryder’s first few jabs at Halsey collectively feel like a condensed shot of abject nihilism. Screenwriter Eric Red brings this overdone opening act to a head by having Ryder run his switchblade up and down Halsey’s cheek, insisting that he’ll only stop once Halsey says, “I want to die.”
The scene unto itself is campy as sin, but it sets up the film’s main dilemma quickly and memorably. It’s Ryder’s way of throwing down the gauntlet to Halsey, a fresh-faced kid on his way to San Diego who nobody, not even the first group of policemen that erroneously arrest him, suspects has a mean bone in his body. By film’s end, Ryder is going to make Halsey want to kill himself, just to prove that he can. He has nothing emotionally vested in ruining Halsey’s life, no secret ties to his past that will unveil themselves later in the film. He’s just fucking with him in the worst way possible (when Halsey nervously quakes, “You’ll get caught,” his dogged tormentor only sighs, “Sure. Fine. So what.”). Think of it as a somewhat more crass but infinitely less pretentious version of Sleuth.
That kind of nonstop self-seriousness should wear thin after a while but director Robert Harmon makes the screenplay’s unabashed cruelty more potent than churlish. Though he infrequently shows that he’s not sure how to handle material as pitilessly aggressive as the kind Red’s handed him, he succeeds in situating the film’s ill-tempered tone within an appropriately desolate interstate dystopia, choked with dust clods and rust. For a neophyte filmmaker like Harmon (The Hitcher was his first feature), that impulse to show us again and again how the look of the movie matches Ryder’s pitiless actions is a problem in disguise. No one can save Halsey from Ryder as he pops up to screw him over again and again, a point driven incessantly into our heads because Harmon refuses to trim an, ahem, excessive scene here and there. I nominate an early confrontation at a gas station where Ryder launches out of a closed garage door in a monstrous pick-up truck and proceeds to torch the place. Calling it overkill would be generous.
Still, if the film starts off as a test of Halsey’s will to live, it certainly doesn’t end up that way. Like Laurence Olivier’s character in Sleuth, Ryder’s knowingly painting a big bullseye on his back so that he can die at the hands of his own spiteful creation. Before the film’s climax, Ryder gives Halsey a chance to kill him, loading the gun and practically thrusting it in his hands. Halsey doesn’t do it because he doesn’t want it badly enough yet, though why not is anybody’s guess. It’s only after Nash, the only person that believes Halsey when he tells the cops that Ryder is setting him up, dies that he’ll gladly pull the trigger. Twice.
The implied homoeroticism of Halsey and Ryder’s relationship is flagrant by the end. Just after the police finally catch Ryder, Halsey looks him square in the eye, shakes hands with the devil and then hocks several gobs-worth of spit on his face. Ryder only smiles and licks up the saliva, knowing that Halsey’s gesture of giving back his own venom is ultimately hollow. With no girl by his side to help him ride off into a Californian sunset, Halsey’s got nothing but his contempt to give him ballast. It’s a long road of self-hate, but Halsey gets there.
The Hitcher’s confused ending is one of the many reasons why it’s an imperfect but intriguing sign of the times. The fact that our hero’s victory isn’t really one he can feel satisfied about points to a need to make the anchorless Halsey, the best of youth personified, pay, but for what is hard to say. Halsey debt is existential, something he owes for no other reason than because he’s young and thinks he can make a new life for himself on the West Coast. Wildly uneven though it may be, Red’s bitter moral certitude is uncanny, making the film a necessary, if not inexplicable, bit of contextless despair to be mulled over years later, like a corrosive valentine to an apocalyptic ’80s that nobody remembers surviving.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books, and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press, and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.