In ‘The Hitcher’ (1986), an Act of Kindness Results in a Claustrophobic Highway Nightmare

In the midst of a driveaway job, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) finds himself starting to drift off in the driver’s seat of the 1977 Cadillac Seville he is on his way to deliver. Coming across a hitchhiker stranded in the middle of nowhere, caught in the pouring rain, he pulls over and kindly offers to help. “My mother told me never to do this,” Jim says with a smile as he invites the stranger into the vehicle. His nightmare is just beginning. 

While the stranger — who quickly reveals himself to be the murderous John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) — does not address when his killing spree started, he jokingly admits to having murdered the previous driver who picked him up. Understandably making Jim regret his decision, the film does not waste time stalling in presenting him as the next victim, thus creating tension right from the start.

As Jim pleads for survival, Ryder says that he wants him to stop him, before forcing him to repeat the statement, “I want to die.” With a knife to his face, its blade moving over his facial features, Jim seizes a moment of inattention and screams out, “I don’t want to die,” as he shoves Ryder out of the car. It was undoubtedly Ryder’s mistake to leave the car door ajar, and unfortunate that Jim took advantage of it. However, with Jim fighting back and acting differently than previous targets, Ryder feels alive.

Close-up of John Ryder and Jim Halsey in the car during their first encounter. Ryder is in focus, hanging over Jim, clearly in control and power of the situation. Halsey is out of focus looking ahead in terror with his mouth open and eyes watered.
Image courtesy of HBO Films

Nightmares — vividly realistic and disturbing dreams — can feature various manifestations of fear, including of the unknown, the self, and the other. Partly inspired by The Doors’ song “Riders on the Storm,” The Hitcher features a world that feels dreamlike, a place detached from reality, where chaos reigns. Journeys that should be straightforward are suddenly bent, and roadside locations like gas stations and diners rarely provide the desired tranquillity. 

Immensely captured by Australian cinematographer John Seale, The Hitcher is a beautifully captured spectacle of mayhem. Here, the American highway becomes a nightmarish landscape where conventional rules of law and order are no more as Ryder appears, disappears, and reappears like a ghost to haunt Jim. Regardless of whether or not he is physically present, due to Hauer’s excellent performance, Ryder’s unnerving presence never truly leaves, resembling nightmares where there’s nowhere to escape or hide. 

Furthermore, the regular use of wide shots when capturing the rural landscape underlines how isolated these characters are. Even though other people exist, including Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the waitress who Jim befriends, it is all about Jim and Ryder. Throughout the film, Ryder continuously torments Jim, leaving nothing off limits when invading his personal space, including a severed finger amongst his french fries as a reminder that he is never safe. Eventually, he fully isolates Jim, stripping him of his identity, turning the police against him, and violently killing Nash. His actions can be viewed as a way to force Jim to recognise that he has to engage with Ryder to be free. 

Shot showing Ryder lying down in the middle of the road after being pushed out of Halsey's car. He is curled up, a body seen in the distance. The still underlines the landscape in The Hitcher which is open and rural yet also ominous.
Image courtesy of HBO Films

With sexual tension too powerful to purely be accidental, particularly in a scene where Jim spits in his face and Ryder rubs the spit between his fingers and onto his lips whilst smiling, there are several ways to interpret their relationship. Whichever direction one takes, there is undoubtedly a peculiar bond between the hunter and the hunted. Possibly, their encounter was accidental, and Jim was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, something about it feels like fate, as if Ryder only appeared alongside that road because Jim happened to drive down it. 

Ryder becomes obsessed with Jim, preoccupied with either trying to kill him or be killed by him. There is undeniably something about Ryder that conveys that he has the desire to die but not the courage to act on it, and instead looks for someone up for the challenge, with Jim being the first one showing this spirit. Indisputably, there is something about their relationship that feels codependent, almost as if they function to move each other’s paths forward. 

Even though Ryder torments Jim until he is only a shell of his former self, he also rescues him to avoid any permanent consequences. When Ryder sets the petrol station up in flames, he waits to flick his matchstick until Jim is free from harm; later on, he kills every police officer at the local station and leaves the cell door open to help Jim escape. Time and time again, Ryder acts in ways that are seemingly contradictory to his nature. 

Ryder comes across as being more supernatural than human, primarily since his force of nature feels like it could only be explained as something otherworldly. For instance, this is evident in how he hears Jim say his name from behind the soundproof glass at the police station and how he manages to jump through a car windshield without harming himself. Additionally, this element of his character makes it unmistakably clear that he easily could have killed Jim several times, but doesn’t because he actively decides not to. 

John Ryder seen lying down on the road, with pieces of glass around him and a bloody face, barely managing to open his eyes when looking ahead of something out of the frame.
Image courtesy of HBO Films

When captured by the police before the climactic finale, viewers learn that Ryder essentially doesn’t exist, as there are no records of him or his origins. When an interrogating detective asks him where he is from, Ryder smiles and answers, “Disneyland.” Referring to a place of make-believe and fantasy seems almost cruel, as The Hitcher presents a world of nightmares rather than dreams.

While the intense cat-and-mouse chase is at the centre of the film, how it plays out can be interpreted as the human need to confront evil and how it can’t be ignored when faced with it. As in real life, when people become aware of evil, they must try to confront it because they can never expect anyone else to do the work for them. 

Feeling tired of a situation that grows more hopeless by the minute, Jim briefly even considers suicide by gun before eventually deciding against it. Later, caught in a diner with the murderous stalker, Jim learns that the gun wasn’t loaded. When learning this, Jim asks Ryder why he is targeting him. In response, Ryder licks two coins, places them against the eyes of a petrified Jim. “You’re a smart kid. Figure it out,” he says before leaving. Referring to the old custom of ensuring the eyelids of the deceased do not open, the act implies that Jim was already a dead man walking. Regardless of his actions during the previous moment of despair by the side of the road, it now becomes evident that he needs to confront Ryder if he wants his nightmare to stop. 

Knowing Ryder, along with the fact that the local law enforcement has continuously proven itself to be incompetent, Jim understands that Ryder will escape their clutches. Consequently, he is the only one capable of both stopping the killing spree and saving himself. After battling it out on the road, it seems like it’s all over when Ryder’s lifeless body ends up on the ground. However, instead of saving himself and letting Jim walk away, the hitchhiker rises for the last time, attracting Jim’s attention with the rattling created by throwing his belly chain and handcuffs against the ground. This act, further accentuating the ambiguousness of their bond, ends with Jim killing Ryder.  

If there ever was any doubt before, the end cements that the man Jim previously was is long gone. Leaning against a car whilst smoking a cigarette, experiencing his first moment of refuge since first meeting the man he just killed, Jim is alone. Alone with himself, his thoughts, and, above all, his actions. Creating a dark silhouette against the beautiful orange-hued sunset, this moment of solitude carries contrasting emotions; he couldn’t save the girl, and in the end, the line between outlaw and hero is blurrier than ever. Jim is alive, yet it doesn’t feel triumphant.     

Still showing the ending, with Jim Halsey standing by the side of a cop car against the orange-hued sunset. It's a moment of solitude and reflection.
Image courtesy of HBO Films

A brutal fever dream, The Hitcher unravels like a nightmare along the American highways and invites viewers along for the ride. Ryder comes across as evil personified since few things are as terrifying as unreasoned violence. To him and the villainous characters who have come both before and after, it’s more fun when victims actively fight back.

In the end, The Hitcher is less about the transference of evil than about the need to confront evil when faced with it, as the film spends its runtime examining manifestations of fear and its reactions. While Ryder undoubtedly has no fear of death, as the story unravels, Jim shows he will do just about anything in order to survive. The last thing Jim says to Ryder in the beginning before pushing him out of the car is that he doesn’t want to die — Ryder spends the entire runtime of the film making him prove it.