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Film Essays, Film Reviews

Death in the Desert: The Hitcher (1986)

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” – Revelation 6:8

There are only two types of people in the world: Rutger Hauer, and people Rutger Hauer is going to kill.

The Hitcher could be described as a ‘thriller’, a horror film about the dangers of picking up strangers on the highway. But something is strange about the movie, there’s something a little off. It’s not just a serial killer film and Rutger Hauer’s “John” is not just a serial killer. The first half of The Hitcher is unlike many others, and before it becomes a rather standard (albeit really well written) case of mistaken identity, The Hitcher is a psychological masterstroke.

The Hitcher begins with C. Thomas Howell picking Rutger Hauer up off the side of the road in a rainstorm. Hauer is calm but menacing, and soon reveals his sadistic ‘eccentricities’ to his driver, telling him about his previous victim and forcing him to beg for his life. Howell shoves Hauer from his car, thinking he has escaped, but is thereon cursed by Hauer’s relentless presence. Wherever Howell goes, Hauer follows, and wherever Hauer goes, death follows.

Rutger Hauer’s hitcher is more than just a personification of our fear of strangers, which is certainly true, he’s also a sort of primeval force. Hauer’s hitcher is like death itself, sweeping through the desert on a pale steed, making others deliver him onto his next victim. He’s a force of nature, from time immemorial, which both kills and cleanses, setting fire to a barren landscape. Hauer is no realistic serial killer because The Hitcher is no realistic serial killer movie. It exists in a netherworld without logic, a dizzying cloud of fear. Hauer kills without desire for anything, even killing again.

After Hauer shoots the cops C. Thomas Howell has hijacked, he disappears, as a hallucination. As an actor, Hauer is overwhelmingly physical, with hands big enough to crush your skull, but as a character, the hitcher is ephemeral, like smoke. He’s capable of impossible things, shooting helicopters from the sky, while simultaneously slipping through our fingers. He leaves behind only corpses and symbols of death, placing pennies in Howell’s eyes.

Not only can Hauer sweep through the desert and kill with ease, as death, he’s also a sort of madness, a pestilence infecting the police he encounters, who repeatedly refuse to acknowledge him. They send Howell into danger with Hauer, allowing him to kill love interest Jennifer Jason Leigh without so much as a single word.

The film begins as Howell sees Hauer and ends the moment the connection is broken. There’s no explanation, no catharsis, almost no words exchanged between them. It’s elegant and distilled, a truly great suspense film.

As an aside, the obvious undercurrent of homoeroticism is somewhat outside the thesis of this post, but it should be mentioned nonetheless. Hauer initially intimidates Howell to drive him by posing as his lover, grabbing for the front of his jeans in front of a construction worker, while secretly holding a switchblade to his genitals. He grabs Howell’s head in the restaurant, lovingly placing the aforementioned coins in his eyes and giving him ammunition for his gun. When Howell spits in his face at the police station, Hauer savors the saliva, rubbing it onto his lips and smiling. Even the idiot cops acknowledge, “There’s something strange going on between you.” Even after striking Hauer with his car, Howell caresses his hair with the barrel of his rifle. They’re like the world’s most extreme S&M lovers.

Roger Ebert thought there was too little of this in the film (wishing they had stated the relationship explicitly, which likely would have garnered the film an X rating), while other critics felt the homoeroticism indicated that the film was homophobic (which is both reactionary and absurd). The Hitcher portrays an intense, unknowable relationship between two people who are bound together for reasons unstated. If that screams homophobia to you, then you’re clearly out there looking for it.

Britta R. Moline  11/29/2011

For more like this:
The Beggar of Pain Speaks to Him: The Lopsided Critique of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist
‘I Wanted to Hurt Him’: One Scene in Burnt Offerings



4 thoughts on “Death in the Desert: The Hitcher (1986)

  1. The film is a haunting dust cloth – to me – and the hitcher himself is like one of those desert balls pushed by an unknown storm. It screenplay was written as tight as a rock yet we were able to give it brushstrokes that allowed the viewer in with many interpretations.What gives me the greatest pleisure is that the real story is beyond the frame,the word,the characters. The real story is not on screen.With some films these unseen dots can be connected.
    Broad strokes from the makers made it possible. Question? I have started a talk on youtube/filmfactoryshorts.

    Posted by rutgerhauer | December 24, 2011, 10:14 am
    • I’m incredibly honored to read this– you’re truly one of the great actors. The film is incredible for what is off-screen, what is just beyond our knowledge and, perhaps, comprehension. It’s a film that can change with each viewing and with the passage of time.
      Thank you, once again and truly, for reading my essay– it means a great deal to me.
      — Britta

      PS. I do encourage everyone to check out Rutger’s video blogs on youtube/filmfactoryshorts– they are very enlightening.

      Posted by VideoWordMadeFlesh | December 24, 2011, 11:50 am
  2. Awesome that Hauer was here. He is legend.

    Posted by EMM | December 25, 2011, 9:31 pm


  1. Pingback: “I wanted to hurt him” : One Scene in ‘Burnt Offerings’ (1976) « Video Word Made Flesh - December 8, 2011

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