Starring C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by Robert Harmon.
"I want you to say four words. 'I. Want. To. Die.'"
Thus begins the horror in one of the most shocking and intense thrillers ever filmed. Jim Halsey(C. Thomas Howell) is an innocent, naive young man, but we barely take a moment to get to know him before he is (and we are) thrusted into the horror that only builds and builds with every scene until the film's end.
Mere minutes into the film, Halsey drives past a wrecked car with a man standing in the rain beside it. He stops, opens the door for the stranger and jokes, "my mother told me never to do this." It is at this point that we are introduced to John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), easily one of the most cold, calculated and chilling madmen in film history.
The two start chatting uneasily, but all attempts to make friends ends quickly as Ryder makes his motives clear. Halsey asks if he saw a man in the car, to which the answer is yes, and if the man would be alright. Ryder takes this opportunity to explain, "I cut off his legs. And his arms. And his head. And I'm going to do the same to you." This triggers a brief fight between the two as Halsey forces Ryder out of the car, and we begin to think we're safe.
But it is only a short time later that Halsey is passed by a family in a station wagon, happy, and he smiles too until he sees Ryder smiling back at him from the car's back seat. Despite Halsey's attempts to warn them, the family pushes on, and he later finds them dead. It becomes evident that Ryder is framing Halsey for his murders, but what's happening here is more than that. Ryder does not want to kill Halsey, he wants to make him into a killer.
Halsey soon meets up with a waitress named Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who happens to think he is innocent, but even when things seem safe, the Hitcher is lurking in the background. Every time our hero sees an ounce of hope, Ryder comes out of nowhere to smash that hope, each time more brutally than the next. The film builds like this, perfectly, each scene more suspenseful than the last, until we reach our jaw-droppingly brutal, and almost beautiful, conclusion.
Well-written and directed, the acting and effects are top-notch, but what pushes this from being a great thriller to one of the best of all time is Rutger Hauer as the unforgivingly psychotic John Ryder.