One of the most peculiar reviews of Roger Ebert’s career is of the 1986’s horror thriller The Hitcher. The Hitcher is about a young man named Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who escapes the clutches of a murderous hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) and who in turn stalks Jim throughout the movie while also framing him for his continuous killing spree.
The strangest thing about this review is that Ebert seemed to understand the underlying dynamic between the two main characters, the sickening bond that develops between the devil and his innocent subject. But similar to his review with Blue Velvet, Ebert seems to be disturbed by the evil displayed on-screen. He suggests a “deep sickness” in the screenplay for The Hitcher, calling it “reprehensible” for “disguising itself as a violent thriller.”
In his TV review he even claims that the ending of The Hitcher suggests that Jim Halsey will become the Hitcher, that by killing Ryder he has become him, almost like a demonic possession. He will continue the endless cycle of violence by murdering anyone in his path until he finds a young subject to stalk and frame his murders to, who then takes his place after their final confrontation.
His fellow reviewer Gene Siskel insisted that there was no meaning to the film’s violence, deeming it to a “disgusting, meaningless shocker.” Perhaps their apathy toward this film could be attributed to the slasher craze at the time, with them being disillusioned by the constant empty bloodbaths on screen.
But it’s unfortunate that they couldn’t appreciate The Hitcher, which is far more than just an empty slasher. Besides the film’s technical prowess and the film’s great performances, it’s the film’s focus, its clear minded message, that makes this film resonate and stand out above the general genre fare.
The Personification of Evil
Ebert is right that The Hitcher almost seems supernatural, as he appears and disappears like a ghost in Jim Halsey’s life. But the film is not about how the transference of one evil spirit to another, it’s about the simple need to confront evil, that when we are faced with it, we can’t turn away from it.
John Ryder personifies pure evil. He’s less of a character then a force of nature. When he’s captured by the police at the end, Captain Esteridge (Jeffrey Demunn) reveals that they have no police record of him, that his origins are unknown. During police interrogation, he won’t even reveal his name. When the interrogating detective asks Ryder where he’s from, Ryder smiles and answers: ‘’Disneyland.’’
We never know when his killing spree started. We know it started earlier on as Ryder jokingly admits to having murdered the previous driver who picked him up — by cutting off his arms and legs apparently. Ryder’s murderous ways must have come from years of experience. He seems quite adept with all kinds of firearms. He knows exactly where to shoot in order to bring a helicopter down. This could suggest a military history. He could easily be a Vietnam veteran, a perfect time and place in which he could unleash his furious evil ways, perhaps he found himself there, amidst the firefight and innocent blood.
He never muses about being a victim of a broken home of malicious bullying, there doesn’t seem to be any particular pathology to his wickedness. Nothing in particular triggers his murderous urges. He doesn’t target sexually promiscuous teenagers. He murders whoever comes in his path — even as suggested, children.
All we know is that he’s taken an interest in Jim Halsey. The reason for his interest in him is never revealed either. When Jim asks him why he is doing this to him, Ryder licks two coins, placing them against the eyes of a petrified Jim and tells him: “you’re a smart kid. You’ll figure it out.”
There are theories off course — besides the ludicrous one that The Hitcher is actually a manifestation of Halsey’s psychopathic nature. Perhaps Ryder became interested in Jim because he was the only person who escaped his murderous clutches. When Ryder had a knife against Jim’s throat, Ryder told him to say: “I want to die.” To Ryder’s surprise, he was shoved out of the moving car, as Jim screamed in adrenaline-fueled defiance: “I don’t want to die!”
Ryder even seems to smile as he gets up from the road, watching Jim’s car fade in the distance. Perhaps he underestimated Jim’s willingness to fight for his life, deeming him to be weak and frail, easy prey. Perhaps he had always been waiting for a boy like him, to make him the subject of his sick game.
One could maybe postulate a deeper purpose for Ryder’s targeting of Jim. Perhaps there was something in his innocent eyes, something he recognized in himself before he leaped into the underworld. This would come closer to Ebert’s theory of Ryder perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in Jim, knowing he’s got the devil in him and Ryder’s mission being to release it on the world — the only way for this to happen is by forcing Jim to kill him.
But the real reason might actually be more disturbing: Jim was just there at the right time. Ryder just wanted to play around with him, being fascinated by his actions from afar — we see him watching a few times from a distance. There’s no deeper reason for his malice. His inscrutable nature, the inability to reason with him is what makes him so truly terrifying.
There’s a sense of erudition around him. It’s as he carries around a secret that no one is aware off. In this seems close to Eddie Blake aka The Comedian, one of the central characters of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen comic. The Comedian seems to be aware of the meaningless of the universe, the sick joke at the center of our being. This would become the justification for the many atrocities he committed in the course of his life. It seems likely that Ryder shares this nihilistic outlook. Life is merely a game and the subjects are there to amuse us, to play around with. Just like the Comedian, Ryder has chosen his specific look. The Comedian wears his nihilistic insignia in the form of the gimp mask and yellow Smiley button strapped against his vest while Ryder on the other hand, wears the long unassuming overcoat.
Ryder might have even inspired the likes of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men or Lorne Malvo from the first season of Fargo. Both these characters are intelligent psychopaths with a single-minded mission, who enjoy watching the human reactions from their victims. They have a higher code than simply financial gain. They exist on an entirely different spiritual plain. They are, as Dr. Loomis so infamously hailed in Halloween, “simply and purely evil…”
A Ghost that Refuses to be Ignored
Ryder does seem like a supernatural being at times. Like a ghost, he appears and disappears in Jim’s life. He refuses to be ignored. No matter where Jim hides, Ryder finds him again. When he opened his door him, he attached himself to Jim and like a malignant host, won’t go away unless he’s exorcised. Ryder even tells him in their first confrontation together, just when Ryder puts the knife to his throat, “I want you to stop me.” Jim has been chosen to stop Ryder’s mayhem. Nobody else, no matter how great the firepower, can stop him.
Ryder had many opportunities to kill Jim but he doesn’t do it. He has different plans for him. Ryder has comprised a narrative for Jim, which involves being framed for his many murders. At the same time, Ryder does not want him perished by the police and even saves him from the police-helicopter that was on the verge or gunning down both Jim and his love-interest Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The only time he shows emotion is when he assaults Nance. Unlike Ryder’s other victims, Nance is the only person Jim showed any personal connection with.
In this peculiar scene, he seemed to struggle within himself just a little bit when he lies next to Nance, pretending to be Jim. When he puts his arms around her, she caresses his fingers affectionately. It seems likely that if Nance would have lived, she would have become the romantic partner to Jim. Ryder knows that and though he doesn’t care for her personally, he does seem to emote some shame towards Jim before he eventually murders her. In this scene Nance is tied between two trucks with Ryder behind the wheel of the front truck, if Ryder pushes down on the clutch, he can tear in two pieces. Ryder is drenched with sweat. He even seems a little tired. One could gather that this is due to him trying to get away from the cops or the anxiety of knowing he’s going to be captured soon.
Yet at the same time, considering the surprising amount of emotion he showed before he kidnapped Nance, it almost feels like there is something more going on here. Compared to his unfeeling viciousness before, it seems that orchestrating Nance’ demise caused him just the tiniest bit of grief.
In this very scene, Ryder gives Jim the gun and gives him the opportunity to kill him, to sever Ryder from his world. But Jim cannot make himself do it, fearing that by shooting him, Ryder will perish and release his foot on the clutch and kill Nance. Ryder seems visibly disappointed by Jim, it’s as if he was trying to teach him something and Jim still doesn’t seem to get it. In anger he pushes down the clutch, killing Nance which in turn breaks Jim down emotionally, giving rise to the fury he needs to take down Ryder.
By the end, Jim finally understands and knows what he must do. He knows that Ryder will escape from prison anyway and will continue his gory mayhem and only he is able to stop him. He must confront evil. In one scene Jim even puts a gun under his chin, considering suicide but then thinking against it. Later on we discover that the gun was empty anyway — no matter what happens, Jim must confront Ryder or else this will never stop. Just like in life, when we become aware of evil we must confront it. We must not expect others to do our dirty work for us. We must stand up and do something about it. It’s our duty as human beings to confront the evil ghosts of this world.
In their final scene together, before Jim pumps two-three shotgun holes in Ryder’s body, Ryder throws a shackle of handcuffs to Jim — signifying that he’s now released of him. Followed up by Mark Isham’s wonderfully melancholic score as the sun begins to set, we see Jim’s shadowy figure as leans against the lone police car, lighting a cigarette, seemingly wondering where to go from here. We are all damaged after confronting evil of this magnitude. And this evil still roams the world, in the hearts and minds of many individuals out there. Sometimes they come out of nowhere, crash our tranquil party and from then on, it never leaves us alone.
It has nothing to do whether or not we deserve it or not. Evil doesn’t work that way. If we only hadn’t opened that door, we might have been safe. Naturally we could never have known that this Hitcher was evil. But we did open the door and now we are stuck with it. Even by destroying it, the Hitcher will still be with us. We will never truly walk away from it. Once we opened its door to him, he will be with us until the end.
And life will never be the same again.
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