Who is he? WHAT is he? What does he want? John Ryder isn’t so much a man, but an entity, a transient force of nihilism, despair and moral existentialism who literally appears out of nowhere to terrorise and question young Jim Halsey (C.Thomas Howell) in Robert Harmons’ The Hitcher.
Although The Hitcher is relatively obscure compared to the more popular horror/thriller titles we have today, it is no less a potent and gripping experience of a film that grabs you by the throat and takes you on a frightening bleak journey about survival in the face of seemingly impossible, almost superhuman odds which also plays on the caution humans have when it comes to taking a stranger into their lives on a long, dark highway in the middle of nowhere. Everything about the film cries isolation and the urgency of survival, but if you ask me, what helps drive it all is Rutger Hauer’s startling performance as the blue-eyed devil of Nevermore known only as John Ryder. Who he is or where he comes from very rapidly becomes irrelevant as for what he wants, well, it is never outright stated, only implied, and even then what are implications in comparison to facts? Armed with a shotgun and the powers of a wraith who can appear out of the scorching hot air of the desert, Ryder focuses most of his unwavering predatory attentions on Halsey without motive or reason… but is that entirely the case here? I feel John Ryder may not be a flesh and blood man at all, but more of an extension of Jims’ personal hang-ups and feelings as he embarks across the barren inlands between Chicago and San Diego.
Makings Of The Monster
According to the film’s writer, Mr. Eric Red, John Ryder was heavily inspired by The Doors’ rather foreboding song Riders On The Storm and I must say, the lyrics are actually incredibly fitting in accordance to the very character of Ryder and the stuff he does in the movie. Take a squiz;
Riders on the storm (x2)
Into this house we’re born, Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone, An actor out on loan,
Riders on the storm There’s a killer on the road,
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad Take a long holiday, Let your children play
If ya give this man a ride, Sweet memory will die Killer on the road, yeah
Girl ya gotta love your man (x2)
Take him by the hand, Make him understand The world on you depends,
Our life will never end Gotta love your man, yeah, Wow!
Riders on the storm (x2)
Into this house we’re born, Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone, An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm, Riders on the storm (x5)
So, apart from knowing nothing about Ryder personally, let’s try to piece together why he gravitated toward Jim in the first place. Chance is a highly valid option for sure, but let’s try to look at it from a different perspective- Jim is all by himself, driving a car that is not his across a desolated (for the most part) desert. We don’t know much about how he is feeling, but during prolonged periods of loneliness, the mind tends to wander in and around itself, it recalls old memories, uncovers long ago pasts and all of these things are mulled over. It’s a trait we all have when we are left to our own devices and our brains tend to hax us about all sorts of things, one thought leads to another and so on and so forth. Perhaps Jim, affected by his solitude was thinking about his mistakes in the past- as I said, this car doesn’t belong to him and the reason why he is transporting it cross country is to get some extra money. Why does he need more money? Did he lose his job? His house? I feel Jim is currently undergoing a personal of crisis of sorts which is why he is doing this job as a favor and as a result, Ryder is a manifestation of sorts of all of his uncertainties about his future and his insecurities as a human being. Ryder suddenly ends up on the edge of the road, seemingly out of the darkness and against Jims’ better judgement, he picks the man up and it is then that Ryder marks his prey. His prey created him, he is a dark reflection of Jims’ consciousness, and now he has been given shape to enact the most deepest and most forbidden of Jims’ aspirations. The only thing of monetary value on Ryder is a wedding band. What could that mean? Is that perhaps a manifestation of Jims’ desire to be in a relationship, or the fact he hasn’t quite gotten over one, given the involvement of the waitress of Nash (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) who appears further on in the movie only to be menaced by Ryder as well? (Or perhaps it could just be Rutger Hauer being a wonderful husband to his wife?)
No identity, no fingerprints, no reason, no place. John Ryder is everything and nothing all at once, in a sense he’s a little like Schrodinger’s Cat only with the desire to cause havoc. Very early in the film Ryder makes clear he has a preoccupation with life and death but he doesn’t explain it. As he tails Jim through the film, he challenges the young man to games that question his desire to live. Jim doesn’t want to die, but Ryder’s game command his undivided attention, which is what Ryder seems to want- he wants to be the very center of Jim Halsey’s world, he doesn’t wish to share it with anybody else. In a sense, you could say that Ryder stands for Jim’s more selfish aspects of his ego, the Freudian concept that covers this refers to the id, the part of the human ego which is completely self-obsessed and self-preservative. It is the part of your mind that kicks in when you feel you should only focus on yourself and your desires, to Hell with everybody else if they dare get in your way. At two different parts of the movie, Jim is given the option to kill himself, or to kill Ryder, all to make the torment stop, and on both occasions, Jim cannot. Why? Because he still has a mortal coil within him that prevents him from taking that fatal final step. It’s not until the end of the movie after an incredibly intense chase that Jim finally faces down Ryder and their accounts are resolved in an anti-climactic but nonetheless worthy fashion. After all that has happened, what has Jim gained, other than keeping his life? He feels nothing, he feels nothing when he is free of Ryder’s torment. So what could that mean? One could argue that even after all of what Ryder put him through, whatever troubles Jim had prior to their meeting still exist, and he still has an uncertain future. Just as the existence of Ryder as questionable, as will be Jim’s life from this point onward. He’s escaped with his life, but at what cost?
Is Ryder some type of element of Jim’s id and innate psychosis made flesh? It seems that way given the nature of their relationship. Ryders’ obsession with Halsey goes beyond the common norms of homoerotic, in fact, it’s incredibly symbiotic. Jim is trying to break away from this force, but it won’t let him no matter how hard he tries. Remember what I said about the trait we all have when we lament our regrets in our most private of moments? Ryder may stand not only for Jim’s dark desires but also his despairs. Imagine having your own failures gazing back at you, following you around every where you go like a specter. When Nash becomes involved with Jim, Ryder becomes incredibly vicious in his pursuit which all culminates to that shocking sequence involving a truck- Ryder/Jim sees Nash as some type of impediment to achieving his own wishes and damned if he is going to allow her to interfere.
Just in case you haven’t already, you gotta check out The Hitcher. It truly is a singular beast of the road thriller/horror genre with all round great performances, especially from Hauer. I feel people these days tend to view Hauer as a likeable cult figure when in reality, he truly is a remarkable actor who possesses a broad spectrum of talent that he sadly hasn’t really been able to express in recent years. The work he did with John Ryder is phenomenal to say the least because to this day, there still isn’t quite anything like him and perhaps that is precisely what Red, Harmon and Hauer wanted. There are no comparisons to be made and thus I will not do so.