Posted by martinteller on October 11, 2014
Poor Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell). He just wanted to move to California, so he got a job delivering someone’s car. Driving through barren Texas in the middle of the night, he starts to get sleepy. When he sees a hitchhiker by the side of the road, he imagines it will be an opportunity to help him stay awake. Boy, was he right. That hitcher is John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), an unstoppable killer who will pile up an impressive body count… and pin all the blame on Jim.
I have a fascination with psychopaths. I’m not alone, or they wouldn’t be so prevalent in our pop culture. Take a character like Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth. His capacity for random cruelty is shocking and upsetting, but so alien that you can’t look away. You try to process how a human being can be so malevolent. But the key there is “human being”. If Ryder is meant to be merely human, then this film is utterly preposterous. His seemingly supernatural ability to be exactly where he needs to be at exactly the right time is beyond belief. So we must accept him as some sort of personification of evil. Okay, but then the only point to this is to display how evil evil can be. Well, duh. And it eliminates any cleverness that might exist in this cat-and-mouse game because we quickly learn that Ryder is gonna pop up at the worst possible moment, no matter what.
If Ryder is the personification of evil, then Jim is the personification of stupidity. Of course it’s easy to scoff at his decisions from the comfort of one’s couch. Any game show contestant who ever made a “dumb” mistake will tell you it’s a lot harder than it looks when the pressure is on. But Jim seems to do the wrong thing over and over and over again. To name just one small example, there’s a moment where he needs to get the hell away from a gasoline fire before his car explodes. What does Jim do? He pauses to roll up the windows. There are no consequences, but it’s just one of many instances where you say to yourself, “Why, Jim?” He’s not the most sympathetic dude.
There are some positives. Howell is a total dud (isn’t he always? I still haven’t forgotten or forgiven Soul Man) but Hauer is a compelling presence. If you’re going to cast for “personification of evil”, you couldn’t do much better. The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of the matter, I think it’s less than 10 minutes before we see what a threat Ryder poses. And the film does consistently maintain its sense of creeping dread, with few pauses in the action. The cinematography makes nice use of the wide open spaces, and Mark Isham’s pulsating score is pretty good. But it all felt like such an empty, pointlessly nihilistic experience. Rating: Fair (66)