Picking up hitchhikers has been fraught with danger in the world of horror for many years – urban legends and folklore told of phantoms catching lifts from unsuspecting mortals, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) featured one of the most unsettling hitchers in cinematic history. But it was Robert Harman’s The Hitcher (1986) that cemented the archetype of the homicidal hitchhiker in popular imagination. The slow burn chases, stark violence and Rutger Hauer’s terrifying central performance caused its viewers to think twice before offering a lift to a stranger with an outstretched thumb.
A young man, Jim Halsey (C Thomas Howell), is on a cross-country drive, delivering a car. On his way through rural Texas and feeling fatigued, he picks up a hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). Although aware of the potential dangers – jokingly saying “my mother told me never to do this” – Jim‘s tiredness and his general good nature prompt him to offer the hitcher a lift. There is something off about Ryder from the start – he is reluctant to tell Jim where he’s going, and pushes down Jim‘s leg to floor the gas pedal as a prank, mocking him.
“John Ryder retains the title of the most terrifying menace on the highway – the hitchhiker that you’d be best to drive straight by.”
Jim manages to kick Ryder out of his car, but a cat-and-mouse game between the two men then ensues with Ryder almost magically one step ahead at all times. Jim stops at a diner, befriending Nash, a waitress there, and for a time thinks that his troubles with the hitcher are over but Ryder continues his pursuit. He frames Jim for his own murders by planting a bloody flick-knife on him, kills police that have taken Jim into custody, murders Nash, and eventually confronts Jim in a battle at dawn in the empty desert.
As events escalate, it becomes a nightmarish, almost surreal situation for Jim. Ryder not only physically threatens Jim, but torments him psychologically – taunting him from other cars when he catches up on the road, and isolating Jim from those who might be able to help him. The lack of any discernible motive is especially disturbing. Jim has no idea why he is being targeted, and Ryder relishes his desperate confusion. In a scene at a diner towards the end of the film, Jim again asks Ryder why he is doing these things, Ryder just replies with a smile, “you’re a smart kid, you’ll figure it out.”
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The structure of the film puts the audience in a similar position to Jim, launching us swiftly into a series of whirlwind events. We see none of Ryder‘s backstory but meet him at the same time as Jim, and are left similarly perplexed at the hitcher’s unnerving behavior. Ryder very quickly starts behaving erratically, and is kicked out of the car for the first time within the first 10 minutes, but the pace doesn’t relent for the rest of the film. We, like Jim, are given barely any time to rest before the next attack by Ryder. Although we don’t discover Ryder‘s ultimate motivations, he clearly enjoys the chase, and doesn’t intend to kill Jim right away. There are several moments when he has an opportunity to kill Jim but doesn’t follow through with it. This scenario happens a number of times, and the catch-and-release rhythm of these encounters ramps up Jim‘s anxiety and the tension of the film’s pacing.
What makes The Hitcher a truly stand-out film is the incredible central performance from Rutger Hauer as John Ryder. Hauer brings the magnetic screen presence he showed in Blade Runner (1982) to the character, and brings a real feeling of depth to such an enigmatic character, despite having relatively little screen time. Even his name suggests he is something of a cipher: an anonymous John, who is merely a “rider”, hitching himself parasitically to other people. In the hands of a lesser actor, Ryder could have been a wooden, one-dimensional villain, killing machine. Hauer’s performance, though, hints at some deeper motive beneath the surface.
It seems that Ryder has something of a death wish, and is trying to provoke someone else into taking him down. In one of the first scenes, Ryder tries to force Jim to say “I want to die” – seemingly projecting his own feelings onto the younger man. Hauer speaks his lines here softly, almost tenderly, suggesting that in this moment he isn’t merely tormenting Jim. The four words he wants Jim to say have real emotional meaning for Ryder. The association of Hauer in the audience’s mind with the replicant Roy Batty, his character from Blade Runner, also gives Ryder another dimension to the character. Like Batty, Ryder seems to have come into the world from nowhere, fully-formed and with an inscrutable agenda.
The desert setting and the desolate scenery of the lonely open road add to the helplessness of Jim‘s plight. With only a few opportunities for contact with other people at gas stations and rest stops, Jim has hardly any chances to escape. He cannot disappear into a crowd or busy traffic, and the wide-open spaces make him a sitting duck, easily found again and again by Ryder.
“In the hands of a lesser actor, Ryder could have been a wooden, one-dimensional villain, killing machine.”
35 years on, The Hitcher still has the power to shock and unsettle. Sudden instances of brutal violence remain powerfully disturbing, revealing Ryder‘s psychotic cruelty in stark detail. The Hitcher has undoubtedly influenced later horror set on the open road, including works such as Creepshow (1987), Breakdown (1997), and Joy Ride (2001). But John Ryder retains the title of the most terrifying menace on the highway – the hitchhiker that you’d be best advised to drive straight by.
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