Near the end of the new Hitcher, an unremarkable truth is revealed. That is, the vicious killer (Sean Bean) who has been pursuing, setting up, and generally horrifying college students Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush) turns out not to be “John Ryder,” as he said he was. You didn’t necessarily ever believe or think much about his name, and so this isn’t much of a surprise or even very chilling. But the plot point does occasion a brief glimpse of a driver’s license with a teeny little photo of the “real John Ryder,” played here by the remake’s director, Dave Meyers.
It’s a clever moment, cute and Hitchcocky, a little ominous (especially as Lieutenant Esteridge [icy-eyed Neal McDonough] holds up the license for scrutiny). And it’s a reminder that, before he turned himself into this imagined bit of roadkill, Meyers was best known as an immensely clever artist, responsible for some superb music videos for Missy Elliot, OutKast, Jennifer Lopez, and Britney Spears, among others. Part of what makes his work so smart is that it acknowledges audience complicity, your understanding of jokes even before they’re offered and your willingness to be enchanted, if not precisely surprised, by work that’s fun and inventive, even when it’s covering familiar ground.
Meyers’ version of The Hitcher is certainly covering such ground. The 1986 movie, by no means brilliant, is beloved for the horrific and delirious relationship it creates between its Jim (C. Thomas Howell) and John Ryder (Rutger Hauer, who is brilliant). Recall the stunning moment when Jim sits down for a brief respite from his ordeal, only to discover that his French fries include a human finger. This memorable scene is not revisited in the new version, but it served an important function in that relationship, namely, it shows that John Ryder is capable of anything. Jim can never escape, he can only become the monster in order to survive.
This is, of course, the realization achieved by most every last girl who survived a slasher film. And so it’s not much of a stretch, or change in theme, that Meyers’ film includes Grace. Her relationship with John Ryder parallels and doesn’t much intersect with Jim’s, except that John Ryder’s menace is made specifically sexual and rape-inclined, at least for a minute. Here John Ryder is again implacable and unknowable, and Jim is again slow on the uptake. This time, however, he has someone to pick up slack (and firearms), as Grace gathers herself into a vengeful and even self-aware fury, as her boyfriend watches in some awe, wondering more than once “what the fuck” she’s doing.
Their nightmare begins on the road, as you know, a road introduced as an opportunity for bloody pulpness when an unconvincingly digitized jack rabbit hops into it at film’s start, only to be splatted — loudly — before the opening credits begin. Grace and Jim are driving through New Mexico for spring break, a lovey-dovey enough couple whose potential idyll is splatted when they almost hit a lone, scary silhouette in the driving rain during their first night driving. It’s John Ryder, looming, sharp-featured, and, once he starts talking, even channeling a bit of Hauer’s unnerving flat accent. (Bean’s career, save for Lord of the Rings, has rather followed the course of Hauer’s, a charismatic, gonna-be-a-star sort of talent limited to mostly villainish parts.) Grace knows not to give him a ride, but Jim makes the fatal mistake… and so on.
The first assault, in their car, leads Jim to believe, wrongly, that he can best the monster, physically. Grace appears to be more nuanced in her understanding of what their facing, reduced for a few moments to trembling and worrying (“We’ll have one hell of a story to tell,” says Jim, by way of reassuring her that it’s over, which it is not). They realize too late that John Ryder does mean it when he says (more than once), “I want to die,” and that he wants Jim to say the “four little words” as well (yes, you get it, the monster wants Jim to become him, and so, wins by losing and vice versa). “I want you to stop me,” John Ryder says, now as he did then. The only question is whether Jim will find it in himself to do so.
Some of the set pieces remain intact: Jim and Grace see John Ryder again on the road, in a station wagon (“Honk if You Love Jesus”) with pretty blond kids and pleasant parents. They must deal with local cops who believe they are responsible for John’s grisly murders (owing to John Ryder’s not-so-ingenious trail of bodies and clues. As the kids do their best to elude this monster — again, capable of anything, even, apparently, throwing a truck at them from the sky — Meyers’ signature cleverness is visible mostly in some not so original stylistic details (bloody close-ups of spiders and a bloodied copy of a children’s book, Will I Go to Heaven?, hectic handheld camerawork, The Birds on a motel TV) and some obvious musical cues (on the car radio, David Soul’s “classic,” “Don’t Give Up on Us Babe,” and on the nondiegetic track, to accompany a brutal sequence, NiN’s “Fuck You Like an Animal”).
Meyers’ other contribution to the saga (presumably instigated by Jake Wade Wall’s adaptation of Eric Red’s ’86 screenplay) appears to be careful attention to Grace’s “trajectory.” If the possibilities she presents are not precisely new, she does present her Jim with a certain model of outrage. When she pulls a gun from a dead cop’s bloody hand (murmuring, “I’m sorry!”), she takes a step beyond Jim’s instinct. That’s not to say Jim doesn’t have his moments too, as when Grace thinks they ought to “get help” and he announces, “He killed the help” before insisting she hand over the gun (later, when they confiscate another, he instructs her to “Get your gun” before they movie on down the road, again).
Jim resents Grace’s insinuation that he is to blame, for giving John Ryder a ride to begin with (“How was I supposed to know he was a sick fucking lunatic?”). But he’s not the film’s primary consciousness, so his thinking tends to get short shrift. As Grace becomes John Ryder, her change does recall that of the first Jim’s, but it’s too often turned into hot-chick-with-a-gun clichés: she wears a miniskirt and boots and she absolutely knows how to handle firearms, from handguns to shotguns. She’s also a little too convincing when she asserts at last, “I don’t feel anything.” If Grace hasn’t been here before, you most certainly have.