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Posts tagged “mark isham

Point Break (1991)

Point BreakThere are so many action movie classics that people call the best, but for me, Point Break is a special, unique film that is, without a doubt, my favorite action movie of all time.  What compels me about this movie that beyond all others is the intense relationship between the protagonist and antagonist.  It creates this amazingly unique dynamic that forges the entire electric, kamikaze adrenalin rush of this film.  So, let’s delve into Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic.

Rookie FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks.  Utah, a former football player, is assigned to Los Angeles.  There, four bank robbers, who wear rubber masks and call themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” have executed a series of successful robberies which embarrassingly have the FBI stumped.  Utah, and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) suspect that the robbers are surfers and hatch a plan for catching them, but the deeper Utah gets connected to the charismatic adrenalin driven Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) the harder it is for him to jump off this tidal wave of danger and excitement.

Point Break absolutely lives up to its premise as being 100% pure adrenalin.  The surfing aspect is just the entryway into this, but it remains at the core of the whole film.  That elevated experience shared by Bodhi and Johnny, specifically, is what fuses those two characters together, and is treated with great respect by the filmmakers.  The skydiving sequences escalate that to another level with breathtaking cinematography that envelopes you in the experience, and make for a radically insane sequence where Johnny jumps out of the plane, without a parachute, to capture the escaping Bodhi.  The earlier chase sequence is visceral and intense that really utilizes a rougher style of camera exceptionally well.  And of course, the bank robberies are slam banged into a high gear that shows just how proficient and threatening the Ex-Presidents are.  It is no wonder why the FBI has not been able to catch them after twenty-seven banks over three years.  Wrap all of this up, and you’ve got a film that goes for the physical thrill of the moment over special effects spectacle.  It’s really all about the character dynamics and these scenarios of extreme rushes that provide the high octane exhilaration of Point Break.

Beyond just the action, the core of this film’s compelling energy are the excellent arcs for both Johnny and Bodhi.  You see Special Agent Utah at the start being this fresh from the academy FBI rookie all straight laced and green, but you can see the eagerness underneath that later fuels that adrenalin junkie urge.  Johnny and Bodhi become genuinely intertwined in a naturally evolving way that inches Utah further towards that kamikaze impulse.  Bodhi’s charisma and aura sucks Johnny right in, but it’s never manipulative.  Everything Bodhi conveys is honest straight to his core, and every word of it energizes Johnny.  Most action films have a clear delineation between the protagonist and the antagonist, but here, things are not so clean cut.  Once Johnny is caught up in Bodhi’s tsunami of pure adrenalin, there’s no way out, and he has to ride it out all the way to its heart pounding, violent end.  Bodhi will push everything to its absolute breaking point while risking everything and everyone in the process, and there is a price to pay for it.

Quite frankly, this would have to be the movie that made me a serious Keanu Reeves fan.  A lot of people give him crap, but I give him a lot of credit.  There’s a great deal of subtle development of Johnny Utah between Reeves’ performance and Bigelow’s direction.  This all occurs as he further embraces the philosophy of Bodhi and his love for Tyler.  Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty have very pure, heartwarming chemistry.  Tyler is vibrant and full of brightness that adds glowing life to Johnny.  Meanwhile, as the connection between Johnny and Bodhi intensifies, so does the performance of Reeves.  Johnny becomes more confident, more determined, and less bound by rules as he is propelled out of control through Bodhi’s deadly thrill ride.  I feel Reeves becomes more compelling as the third act shifts into high gear, and Johnny has to has to jump right off the deep end after Bodhi.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction really envelopes you into Johnny’s mindset whether he’s mesmerized, haunted, elated, or burning with conviction.  Through all of this Reeves is genuine and sincere in his emotions.  You are kept very closely in tuned with Johnny’s mindset through successes, failures, and conflicts.  Point Break is a film that drives everything right to the edge.  Every danger, every extreme, every adrenalin rush is pushed to its insane limits at whatever cost imaginable.  Bodhi embraces this without hesitation or a moral compass.  He’s essentially a barreling freight train unwilling to put on the brakes regardless of what it will cost him.

Patrick Swayze is wickedly good as Bodhi.  He envelopes the character entirely in philosophy, conviction, physicality, and spirituality.  I love how Bodhi has this ethereal link to the sea, and gains a serenity from surfing while being an extreme adrenalin junkie.  Yet, it’s not merely about the thrill with the bank robberies.  He has a greater purpose by showing the shackled masses living their mundane, slave to the grind lives that the human spirit is thriving within his crew.  Swayze is so electrifying with his natural charisma and intense commitment to the character.  When I watch this film, I don’t perceive Patrick Swayze playing a role.  I see Bodhi through and through.  Swayze is stunningly excellent here, and I’m still a little sad that he is no longer with us.  He was an amazingly talented actor, and this should stand as one of his best, most compelling performances.

Rounding out the main cast is Gary Busey in a great, entertaining role as Angelo Pappas.  He can be hilariously funny and quirky, but solidly dramatic in the right moments.  It’s a really well rounded character portrayed by an actor with the smart talent to balance those elements out perfectly.  Plus, there’s John C. McGinley as FBI Director Ben Harp.  Surely, he might seem like the stereotypical loud mouthed boss slinging insults around to his subordinates, but McGinley’s such a strongly talented actor that it never comes off as shallow or tired.  Add in a touch of smug arrogance, and the character of Harp works dead-on-the-mark in McGinley’s hands.

The musical score by Mark Isham is really fantastic.  For one, I love how he captures the enveloping spiritual sense of the sea with smooth, flowing compositions.  It’s very beautiful work that reflects the philosophies of Bodhi long before he enters the film officially.  There is another gorgeous cue that reflects the mystique of Bodhi that’s only a few chords, but it’s repeated a few times to very magical effect.  The action cues are good, yet subtle.  Isham never bombards you with pounding percussion.

The soundtrack is energized with songs that capture that Southern California feel from bands such as L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, Public Image Ltd., and capped off with my beloved “Nobody Rides For Free” by Ratt.  That song perfectly concludes the film, and reflects the constant energy and excitement that runs through it.

The film really escalates to another level when Johnny realizes who the Ex-Presidents actually are, and that super charges every scene from there on out.  The emotions hang on the razor’s edge.  For Bodhi, it ups the stakes making the adrenalin rush and peril even more appetizing for him.  For Johnny, it creates conflict as he has forged a very close bond and kinship with Bodhi, but is soon forced to do whatever is necessary as Tyler is put into imminent peril.  Unlike most action movies such as Die Hard where it’s very straight forward that this is the bad guy and he’s going to die without question, Point Break makes it all far less certain because all of these emotions, some are unexplainable, cloud and complicate the issue.  What all of this builds to is possibly my favorite movie ending of all time that entirely departs from all action film expectations.

The relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi reaches its apex on a storm soaked beach.  Their connection remains electrifying as these two clash, but it’s not the fist fight that makes this as great as it is.  Johnny finally has Bodhi in handcuffs ready to put him in a cage for life, but it’s that spiritual kinship between the two that sparks off something unique.  All the groundwork for this ending is laid early on in the film in one scene over a bonfire, and the pay-off is amazing to me.  Point Break is my favorite action film not because it has the best action sequences, or because of its pleasantly memorable dialogue.  It’s because of the culmination of this ending.  Everything that these two characters have developed between each other throughout the movie is so smartly interwoven, setup, and punctuated here.  It concludes an amazing arc for Johnny Utah who begins as this clean cut rookie FBI Agent who changes into someone driven by impulse, emotion, and that inexplicable sensation he gets out on those waves.  He pursues Bodhi down around the world for months on end, but in those final moments with an honest plea from Bodhi that only Johnny can understand fully, you get an ending that breaks a lot of rules in all the right ways.  This ending captivates me to no end that I have attempted to homage and replicate in many of my own scripts.

Karthryn Bigelow did not have any real box office success prior to this film, despite turning out some quite good films such as Near Dark and Blue Steel.  With Point Break, she really came into fruition with a greatly exciting, fresh, and original summer action picture that really delivered.  She shows a great visual style here that pinpoints emotion greatly and really envelopes you into every fiber of this film.  Possibly less than half of Bigelow’s movies in her thirty year career have actually been box office successes, and that’s a horrible shame.  I think she is an incredible director who showed a great deal of potential here, which she would capitalize upon in with stunning results in Strange Days.  Her collaboration on both pictures with now ex-husband James Cameron really shows through in all the best ways.  Point Break shares some common ground with Cameron’s work, and even he draws some parallels between the endings of this movie and Terminator 2.  Regardless, I will take no credit away from Bigelow who gave us this excellent pure adrenalin rush of a movie which has not been replicated since.  I think it goes without saying that I recommend this movie with great passion.


Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the SkyIt’s unusual to review a movie of this sort.  Fire in the Sky is based on a true story of alien abduction.  I know there are skeptics out there about this sort of thing, understandably so, and my stance is that I’m willing to believe, same as with the paranormal.  I can’t apply the same approach to a film of this sort, talking about characters like they’re fictional creations, or how clever the story is conceived and executed.  This is about how well the reality of these peoples’ lives are conveyed on screen, and the quality in which these events are portrayed.  What we have here is a great, solid movie that I really should have watched a lot more over the years.  I first saw it as a VHS rental back in the late 1990s.  I owned the DVDs for probably five or six years before I actually watched it.  So, I can accurately say that for this review, I watched Fire in the Sky for the third time, ever.

Six men saw it.  One man became a prisoner inside it.  But who would believe them?  In 1975, logger Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his co-workers discovered a hovering UFO.  Walton’s pals fled, but Walton was not so fortunate.  Whisked aboard the strange craft, he was subjected to a painful, unearthly medical study.  This is the amazing tale of that ordeal, and of the contempt and ridicule endured by his co-workers as they try to explain Walton’s mysterious disappearance.  Skilled investigator Frank Watters (James Garner) suspects their story may be a murder cover-up, but these men, led by Travis’ best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), stand by the extraordinary events they recount.  When Walton is returned in a severe traumatic state, questions become even more fantastical with the answers being more disturbing than they could imagine.

This film is smartly structured starting out with the aftermath of the abduction, and then, having Rogers and the other loggers fill in the story with their own words.  Everything that is shown about Travis pre-abduction is done in lengthy flashback, and I feel that was the perfect way to start out the movie and present Travis – show him through the eyes of his best friend.  This also presents the idea of witness accounts showing us the story from a subjective point of view, and sets up the real life oppositions these men had to face from their fellow townsfolk.  Next to no one would believe such a wildly fantastical story, and the police would surely look for criminal motives for Travis’ disappearance.  They have to fight for every ounce of credibility they can get, and the film takes us on that journey while focusing very deeply on their emotional turmoil.

D.B. Sweeney does a wonderful job in these flashback scenes showcasing a very lively, fun, and enthusiastic young man full of aspirations.  He’s clearly the brightest personality amongst these men with the biggest heart.  Showing the audience these substantive glimpses into Travis makes the impact of his traumatic abduction all the more terrifying and disturbing.  The abduction scene itself is frightening, and still gave me choked up chills.  This is a credit to the realistic, grounded, and textured nature of the film.  Director Robert Lieberman makes the danger feel paralyzingly real, and gives the film honest, emotional weight.

The last time I watched Fire in the Sky I made a note reminding me of just how great of an actor Robert Patrick is.  He really is the lead for most of the movie holding the weight of emotion on his shoulders, and doing so in masterful fashion.  The absolute depth of pain and fear is soaked into every fiber of his performance with his eyes selling so much.  Patrick is both very sympathetic as well as full of conviction and fire.  As Mike Rogers, he is both a confident, passionate leader and a man dealing with his own internal fears and grief.  There is so much humanity and strength in what he does here that this should stand as one of Patrick’s best performances.  He genuinely made me feel every emotion that he poured out of his soul, and it was a very wide and complex range of humanity offered by him.  It is only a shame that the only accolades he was offered for this film was a Saturn Award nomination.  He clearly deserves a lot more notoriety for having this level of talent.

This film is also packed with a strong supporting cast.  James Garner puts in a very solid performance as the consummate investigator Frank Watters.  You can sense the fair and just manner of Watters from everything Garner does on-screen.  He never jumps to conclusions or to condemn these men.  Even at the end, he’s not convinced of what they all say is the truth as the evidence is simply not there for him to make a conclusion.  He’s simply willing to wait and see.  Peter Berg and Henry Thomas greatly portray two of Travis’ friends, David Whitlock and Greg Hayes, both with their shaken qualities.  Yet, both actors showcase strength where needed to show that these men were standing by their statements.  Craig Sheffer has a surprisingly excellent turn as Allan Dallis, one of the loggers who has a bad attitude and doesn’t get along with anyone.  I’ve only seen Sheffer in some really poor Dimension Films direct-to-video sequels, and has never impressed me before now.  I think he did a very solid job making Dallis a very strong element in this story as a sort of wild card in the mix.  Dallis almost went out of his way to make it known he didn’t like Travis, and Sheffer’s performance really brings that friction and tension to the forefront.  Lastly, Noble Willingham fits very comfortably into the role of the local Sheriff Blake Davis bringing a trusted, honest, firm quality.  Overall, every performance feels very authentic with both obvious and subtle depth throughout.

In the latter third of the film, when Travis Walton does return, he’s in a terribly traumatized state with Sweeney putting in a great performance.  The lively young man that he once was has been entirely eviscerated leaving only a shell of a man behind.  This abduction experience forges a hard, deep wedge between Travis and Mike.  Travis is so traumatized that he resents Mike for running away from the scene of the abduction instead of helping him when he had the chance.  Unfortunately, this aspect is not given much screentime as the film shifts its focus deeply towards Travis’ struggles.  I certainly would’ve liked to have seen that strained friendship drama play out more to see how hard it truly hit Mike, and the process of how it damaged his life.  Fortunately, the film doesn’t forget about this as it is given its proper due by the end remembering that it is the people and their lives that mean the most here.

When we are finally shown what Travis Walton experienced during those five days, it is the most visceral and terrifying alien abduction sequence ever committed to film.  The production design is stunning like something out of your most dreadful nightmare with its surreal qualities and purely absorbing, grim reality.  It is something that would leave you scared out of your mind, and leave you never being the same person you once were, if you experienced it in reality.  This is a very elaborate and long sequence that will freak you out down to your very core.  This is possibly the most paralyzing sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.  Even after it ended, it took me a minute or so to ease myself out of it.  To even consider that this might have actually happened to another human being is unfathomable.  Industrial Light & Magic did an unspeakably remarkable job on this entire sequence.  The aliens themselves are so finely detailed and textured that you’d swear they were real, and this adds further to how visceral this all is on film.  It is stunning work down to the smallest nuanc.  So much so that this deserved special awards recognition at the time as well, but sadly, received none.  Of course, it’s very little in terms of visual effects as it is an overall collective work of production design, cinematography, physical effects, animatronics, sound design, and music that made this sequence so chillingly effective.

And of course, the cinematography is damn good all the way through.  Bill Pope and director Robert Lieberman clearly worked very hard to create a look for Fire in the Sky that was firmly grounded in reality.  There is such texture and weight to every shot to maintain that solid grip on the fact that this is based on a true story, and directly avoid injecting even the smallest sense of fantasy into this.  I know that sounds a little peculiar due to the alien abduction nature of the story, but even that feels shockingly real down to the grittiest of details.  This film is shot exceptionally well with wonderful angles and compositions which complement the dramatic scope of the story, both internal and external.  In all technical qualities, this is a superbly executed film made by a very solid crew of creative forces.

Now, the thing that tends to make films based off of true events different than fictional films is that there’s rarely a traditional conclusion to them.  The lives of these people continue on, and not everyone gains closure from what is documented in the movie.  So, there’s only so much of a complete story the film can offer.  Thus, Fire in the Sky is more focused on the people involved instead of a traditional three-act structured plot.  I’m sure there were a few tweaks to reality, such as the filmmakers reducing the number of loggers from seven to six for ease of storytelling, but I’m sure the human emotion of what happened remained very much intact and accurate.  Also, unlike many true stories, this one still requires the audience to believe in something they may not be inclined to believe in terms of extraterrestrial life.  However, even if you are not a believer, there is still a very strong, human story to experience in Fire in the Sky.

This is an amazingly effective and masterfully executed movie that brings more impactful reality to an alien abduction story than I’ve ever witnessed on film.  A viewing is highly worth it for two things  – Robert Patrick’s deeply emotional performance and the entire terrifying sequence aboard the alien spacecraft.  Even the film’s trailer is scary featuring only brief glimpses of that sequence along with a very foreboding voice over.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a great movie that is definitely worth your time, if this genre is your thing.  Again, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Mike Rogers in the aftermath of Travis’ traumatic return to give their reconciliation more pay-off, and to follow through on how this entire experience affected Mike, in detail.  Still, what we are given is solid, fascinating, and disturbing.  Fire in the Sky is a unique film that surely deserves more credit than time has seen fit to grant it, and I hope my words of praise here will help a little in that regard.


The Hitcher (1986)

“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.”  These are lyrics from The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” which inspired the story for this film for screenwriter Eric Red.  The Hitcher is a masterpiece of suspense and tension headed up by an intelligent and brilliant performance by Rutger Hauer, portraying the title character.  It’s a film that was never a major hit, but remains as a gleaming gem of a horror film.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.

Transporting a car from Chicago to San Diego, the young Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) picks up hitch-hiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) one rainy night hoping he might be able to saved off his own drowsiness.  However, this man soon reveals that he is a homicidal psychopath, having already butchered another driver, and threatens Jim with a knife to his throat.  Jim, fortunately, is able to eject this killer from his car, but the terror for him has only just begun.  Through this American southwest desert landscape, the cunning and methodical Ryder plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Halsey.  He even frames Halsey for his murders, forcing Jim to fiercely evade the police at every turn.  The only aid Jim receives is from diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who eventually becomes caught up in this terrifying, blood-stained fight for survival.

The Hitcher is so effective for two major reasons.  Firstly, director Robert Harmon does an amazing job crafting a desolate feeling of isolation which creates an atmosphere of unease.  The desert landscape gives the film a sense of barren hopelessness.  It is so wide open, but offers no place for escape for Jim Halsey from John Ryder’s malicious intent.  It’s also a film that gives you degrees of suspense and tension.  Sometimes, it’s low key and subtle just unnerving you enough to setup for something horrifically gruesome.  Other times, it’s wrapped so tight, it might just choke you.

The other reason is Rutger Hauer.  His is a frightening performance on the most realistic level imaginable.  His John Ryder is a man of twisted charm wrapped up in the mind of a homicidal psychopath.  Those chillingly cold eyes show no soul or humanity behind them, and they are unflinching.  They offer no reprieve from his relentless insanity.  Yet, Hauer injects so much sadistic, insidious pleasure into this role, engrossing himself deeply and fully into the madness, showing just how much perverse enjoyment Ryder gets out of all of this.  There is so much multi-layered dimension constantly showing the sick, depraved gears turning in his head.  He’s not your ordinary psychopath who is going to murder everyone in sight.  After Jim gets the better of him, Ryder becomes intently focused on Jim, and decides to psychologically torment him relentlessly.  Ryder doesn’t want to kill him.  Instead, he provokes Jim repeatedly because he wants Jim to stop him.  Ryder is the one who wants to die, but suicide is not in his psychological make-up.  He needs someone else to do it for him, and he is entirely incapable of stopping his murder spree until someone does stop him.  It is a terrifying, riveting performance filled with immense intelligence by Rutger Hauer, and it is one of his best roles alongside Roy Batty in Blade Runner.

Likewise, C. Thomas Howell is amazing.  You can see and feel the intense, paralyzing fear that Ryder puts into Jim Halsey.  Howell pours so much into Jim’s desperation which drives him to further rash action.  There is even one powerful moment, after Ryder has murdered an entire station of police officers, where Jim contemplates suicide to escape what seems like an otherwise inescapable nightmare.  You can see the very average, decent person he was slowly get pushed further and further towards his limits.  The torment by Ryder forges a seemingly compulsive symbiosis between them.  The connection between Ryder and Halsey is brilliantly crafted to intertwine their fates, and build up to an absolutely shocking final twenty minutes.  Despite being very familiar with what happens in the truck stop scene, even after all these years, I was still horrified by its outcome.  Some might say that not showing the actual shockingly gruesome outcome actually detracts from the film.  I say that it works either way, but I can definitely feel the need to have that visceral image of horror going into the final confrontation between Halsey and Ryder.  Regardless, the moment still has powerful impact without it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh makes an immediate charming impression.  She quickly endears herself with both a warm sensibility and a tough enough edge to give Nash some strength of character.  I think that sweet Southern accent really aids these qualities of her performance.  Leigh and Howell work very, very well opposite one another, and I think it’s refreshing that no romantic connection is forced into the story.  Jim and Nash are certainly bonded, to an extent, but their time together doesn’t give them the opportunity to get that deeply emotionally involved.  Leigh does plenty without that contrivance to build sympathy for Nash.

The only odd thing in the film is that I do find it confusing why the local police immediately believe that Jim is the killer they are looking for.  As most of us have, I’ve watched plenty of police procedural shows over the years, and the last thing an experienced officer does is jump to conclusions without evidence to back them up.  Of course, after John Ryder has begun deliberately framing Jim for the murdered police officers, it becomes very easy to grasp this idea, but before then, the cops have no honest reason to dead-set accuse Jim for the murders on the highway and at the service station.

The car chase sequences are amazingly well done.  Each one is intense and exciting creating real imminent danger for our protagonists.  The filmmakers even go further when a police helicopter begins chasing after Jim and Nash, but the film never loses sight of its true focus.  These action scenes flow organically from the plot as Jim runs from the police, or John Ryder tries to run him off the road.  Also, the film doesn’t go for large amounts of gore, and thus, when something grisly hits, it has so much more impact.  The same goes for the violence Ryder inflicts.  We don’t see every death.  There’s a good amount that is chillingly implied, or we only see the bloody aftermath.  This shows what Ryder is capable of, and sets an atmosphere of impending dread and unpredictable horror.  Yet, we do get some gory, violent kills which have immense impact on both the audience and Jim Halsey.

The cinematography is absolutely superb.  There is excellent use of composition – both tight and wide – along with smart camera movement, mainly with steadicams, and well chosen angles, all of which complement and enhance the dramatic depth of the film.  Director Robert Harmon, his editor, and director of photography do a rock solid job with every shot to tell a competent visual story with plenty of tight suspense and tension.

Mark Isham’s primarily electronically based score is excellent as well.  It creates a subtle presence that complements the desolate atmosphere, and never oversells any moment of quiet terror.  It also deeply highlights the moments of emotional pain and despair with its light, ambient style.  The aforementioned action sequences are scored with frenetic intensity, and really ramp up the adrenalin and danger.

The Hitcher feels like a slow, psychotic descent into hell.  One would almost welcome death after half of what Ryder puts Halsey through, but Jim shows the will to survive and the desire not to die.  Even with cops trying to lock him up and even kill him, being psychologically tormented at every turn, Jim fights to break free of this psychotic web of madness.  This is what constantly pushes him forward to either find a way out this deadly game, or to combat Ryder himself.  Ultimately, he is pushed so hard to where, as the audience, we won’t accept anything less than an intense one-on-one confrontation between them.  And because this film is so brilliantly crafted and executed by so many magnificent talents, the ending does not disappoint at all.  Truly a fitting end which will leave you feeling the emotional impact straight through the film’s sobering end credits score.

Rutger Hauer absolutely plays one of the best villains of cinema here in a film that is one of the best examples of suspenseful terror I’ve ever witnessed.  John Ryder is immensely intelligent, but also a complete sociopath and psychopath.  The fact that the film builds that relationship between Ryder and Halsey is really what gives the film its strength and edge.  Director Robert Harmon and writer Eric Red did a phenomenal job The Hitcher assembling an immensely talented cast which grounded the film in deep, intense emotion.  The suspense couldn’t be more masterfully crafted, and the tension is so nerve racking and thick.  Every technical and artistic element works in perfect to make this one of the best, most effective psychological horror films I’ve ever experienced.  You will do yourself a real favor by giving this 1986 original a watch.  I never saw the remake because, like in so many cases, the original required no improvement or re-invention.  The Hitcher is a dead-on classic.