If You Thought Nocturnal Animals Was Too Tame, The Hitcher Is for You

By Robert Silva


The hitchhiker presses a switchblade to a young man’s neck. The young man is at the wheel of a moving car. It is dark.

“What do you want?” asks the young man, played by C. Thomas Howell. He’s on the verge of tears.

“I want you to stop me.”

“You got the knife. You’ll stick me with it before I can do anything.”

“That’s right. So what have you got to lose? Stop me.”

That double bind, and the strange intimacy of this encounter, is the waking nightmare that is the 1986 cult classic The Hitcher. In the genre of thrillers about traumatic on-the-road encounters — among them Nocturnal Animals, Breakdown and Joy Ride — this pulp masterpiece is in a category all its own.

Howell’s character begins the film as a wide-eyed, all-American everyman. Headed to California, he makes the unfortunate decision to pick up a rain-drenched hitchhiker: “I was tired. I thought he’d help me stay awake,” he reasons to Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing a diner waitress with a blond bouffant.

He’s not wrong.

The hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) turns out to be a charismatic killer. Jim narrowly avoids death by pushing the man out of the car, but sets off a series of events that have the surreal logic of a nightmare. The pair’s destinies remain linked as the hitcher lures additional victims with a raised thumb, including a family in their station wagon. Predictably, Jim falls under suspicion of his passenger’s crimes. Less predictably, the hitcher comes to Jim’s rescue — in singularly brutal fashion.

From false imprisonment to a police station massacre, The Hitcher relentlessly escalates in anxiety, and just when you think it’s over, like a nightmare seeming to reach its conclusion, it gets worse. Mark Isham’s brooding synth score, hangs with a layer of Lynchian menace over the proceedings; as the love interest, Leigh’s waitress is at first all-too understanding of Jim’s strange predicament, but by the deranged third act, her seemingly stock character becomes all-too human, and the movie’s defining trauma.

Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke) is smoothly menacing in one of his early American roles, sizing up his prey with the steady gaze of an uncoiled cobra. There’s an uncanny quality to the performance, which is alternately charming and chilling.

What the hitcher wants, and who he is, remain enigmas. As does his connection to the young driver who, as the film goes on, begins to more closely resemble his tormentor. “There’s something strange going on between the two of you,” a sheriff tells Jim. “I don’t know what it is; I don’t want to know.”

That connection remains a mystery, and what, decades later, still gives The Hitcher a disturbing emotional charge. What is the link between what we are and what we fear? Anyone waking from a bad dream must realize that the nightmare, no matter how bad it is, comes from themselves.