This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a while but never really found the time. But with the recent passing of Rutger Hauer a couple of weeks back, this seems like the right moment to make it happen.
The Hitcher was a very low budget psychological horror/thriller film from 1989 and it’s easily my favourite Rutger Hauer flick. For those not in the know, a quick synopsis of what The Hitcher is all about.
So The Hitcher written by Eric Red and directed by Robert Harmon and was inspired by The Doors song, Riders On The Storm and if you listen to the lyrics knowing the characters in the film, it all makes perfect sense too.
So the film tells the story of a young man, Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) who is delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego. While driving through the West Texas desert, Halsey spots a hitcher and offers him a lift. The man says his name is John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). Ryder soon reveals himself to be a little unstable and a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins as Ryder sets his sights on killing Halsey… but why?
I love Rutger Hauer in this flick and John Ryder is definitely one of cinema’s great villains. But there has always been a query that has run through my mind for years… just who was John Ryder? The film itself explains nothing. No mention of where he came from, where he was going or what he was doing. No rhyme or reason is given as to why Ryder wants to kill Halsey either. Who John Ryder is and what he wants is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. I have read a few theories from others offering their opinions on just who or what he was. I’ve read one saying Ryder some kind of demon or ghost. One theory suggesting that he was the Devil himself, I even read a article that suggested Ryder doesn’t even exist and was just a figment of Halsey’s imagination. I’ve read lots and lots of theories and opinions on just who John Ryder was and so wanted to offer my own.
Now, I don’t buy into anything supernatural with this flick. It just does not work for me and takes away from The Hitcher’s effective psychological horror element if you just say ‘John Ryder is a ghost/the Devil’, it feels like a cop out and dismisses a lot of the very clever, subtle writing and acting in the flick. Then the theory of Ryder being a figment of Halsey’s imagination also does not work. There are several instances in the picture where both Ryder and Halsey are addressed by other people, so they are most definitely two separate people. So what do I think? Well, I think he’s just a man. I like that simplicity and it makes the whole thing much more scary. A much as I like my supernatural killers in horror films, Myers, Voorhees, Krueger etc. As much as I like them… I know they are not real and never could be and that takes away some of the scares, some of the horror. But when the killer is human, it adds that layer of realism that supernatural horror lacks. You’ll never come across a Freddy Krueger in your life, but a John Ryder? It’s possible.
Now, there is a lot more to my theory as to who John Ryder is other than “he’s just a man” otherwise this would be a really short article. So I need to dig a little deeper, scratch the surface of what The Hitcher offers and explore the enigma that is John Ryder. And the best place to start with all of this is with the recently passed Rutger Hauer himself. There is a documentary of the film called: The Hitcher: How Do These Movies Get Made? It’s chock-full of interviews with the cast and crew and perhaps one of the best quotes from the documentary comes from Hauer when he is asked who John Ryder was…
“John Ryder? That’s a rental car company. This guy’s name’s not John Ryder forget it.”
– Rutger Hauer
So even the man himself believes John Ryder was a fake name and there is even a clue to this in the film. During the scene when he reveals his name, the way Hauer plays it is very subtle but there is a clue if you pay attention. It’s how he says his name, when Halsey asks the hitcher his name, he quickly says “John”, but then there is a slight pause as if he’s trying to think up the next part before continuing with “Ryder”. So there we have it, John Ryder doesn’t exist or at least the name is made up. This is where I start with my theory on who he was. At the very least, we know his name wasn’t really John Ryder.
I also noticed that the hitcher was wearing a wedding ring. Now this could’ve just been Rutger Hauer’s actual wedding ring as he was married at the time of filming. But for my theory, I’m going to assume the ring belonged to Ryder himself, or at least the person using the name Ryder anyway but more on this later.
I need to cover why Ryder felt the need to terrorise Halsey to begin with. See, it’s never explicitly covered exactly why the hitcher is trying to kill the kid at all… but I don’t think he really wanted to kill him anyway. For this to make sense, we need to look at a couple of other scenes. First I want to jump forward in the flick to the diner scene… no not the one with the finger but later, after Halsey escapes the police station and the two meet up in a diner.
Jim Halsey: “Why are you doing this?”
John Ryder: “You’re a smart kid, you figure it out.”
Now to me, this says little but tells a lot at the same time. It’s clear Ryder wants ‘something’ from Halsey as if he didn’t, he could have killed him very easily earlier in the film. I mean look at the police station scene as an example. Ryder must have killed all those cops and opened Halsey’s cell door. So if all Ryder wanted to do was kill the kid… why not do it right then while he slept?
In fact there are several scenes in the film where Ryder could’ve very easily killed Halsey with little to no effort but didn’t. The previously mentioned police station is just one of them. How about earlier in the film at the abandoned garage? It’s just the two of them, no witnesses and instead of trying to attack and kill the kid, the hitcher throws down the car keys and walks away. We know Ryder is capable of some sick stuff before this point in the flick too.
John Ryder: “Because I cut off his legs and his arms and his head… and I’m going to do the same to you.”
Now we don’t see that happen and for all we know Ryder could’ve been bullshitting… but what about just after that scene with the hitcher in the family car? The film is clever here as it does not show anything specific when Halsey finds the car at the side of the road, we see a little drop of blood and that’s it. But it’s clear Ryder did something pretty horrific to the family including the children by Halsey’s reaction and him throwing up. So yeah, he could’ve easily murdered Jim Halsey but didn’t. No, it’s clear to me that Ryder wanted something from Halsey and didn’t just want to kill him. But what?
My theory is that John Ryder wanted someone to stop him. In fact the hitcher himself pretty much says so. I need to go back to the start of the film again and look at one scene in particular. It’s when Ryder pulls out the knife and holds it to Halsey’s face.
Jim Halsey: “What’d you want?”
John Ryder: “I want you to stop me.”
See? John Ryder wanted to be stopped but no one had stood up to him at that point in the flick. In fact it looked like Halsey would become just another victim until he pushed the hitcher out of the car as it sped along that desert road. That was the moment when Ryder knew he had found someone worthy and so he followed Halsey as a kind of sick and twisted guardian angel and pushed him to do something that Ryder just could not do. I think John Ryder wanted to die.
Jim Halsey: ” Please, I’ll do anything.”
John Ryder: “Say four words.”
Jim Halsey: “Okay.”
John Ryder: “Say ‘I wanna die.'”
Jim Halsey: “Say what?”
John Ryder: “I want to die… say it.”
For me, this exchange is key to the whole thing. This is a scene where Huger’s amazing and subtle acting comes into force. When Ryder first tells Halsey to say the four words, to say “I wanna die” (that’s three words with the contraction) that is pretty straight forward and just comes across as a crazy bastard trying to get his victim to say those four (three) words. But it’s the second time Hauer says the line where you have to pay attention. As the acting and the way Hauer plays it is key to everything.
First, the contraction is gone and ‘wanna’ becomes ‘want to’, it makes the line more ‘certain’ in a way, adds more gravitas to that very simple line. Second, they way the line is read is softer, not angry as before. It sounds like Ryder was saying that line to himself and not to Halsey. Third, just pay attention to the acting itself. Ryder breaks eye contact with Halsey as he says “I want to die”, he’s not talking to his victim and telling him to say the line, he’s talking to whoever the person is using the fake name of John Ryder. As if in that second or two he just realised what he wanted… he wants to die, not that he wanted Halsey to say the line, ‘Ryder’ wants to die. Then just as soon as the line is delivered, he snaps out of his little moment of realisation and back into character, back into John Ryder mode. It’s an amazing scene and one really worth watching. I’m convinced that just for those few moments when Ryder says “I want to die” for the second time, he dropped his facade. It’s subtle but it is there and only for a couple of seconds and in those couple of seconds, we saw the real man whatever his real name is.
But why does he want to die? Well that goes back to that wedding ring I previously mentioned. If we take it as read that the ring did indeed belong to the man pretending to be ‘John Ryder’, then this is where my theory really comes to life. My theory is that the hitcher was once married, hence the ring and he lost his wife. Originally I put it down that he killed his wife, but that didn’t sit right with me and I think Ryder deserves to be a bit more of a sympathetic character despite his homicidal tendencies. So I’m suggesting his wife died from something else. Cancer, raped and murdered, accidental death… pick one, it’s not really that important exactly how she died but more a case of she did and there as nothing Ryder could’ve done about it. I like to think there was a time when Ryder was a normal, loving man.
Since her passing, he has felt guilty that he was helpless in her demise. His anger grew and grew until he just snapped. Suicide was just not an option, that was the easy way out. So Ryder spent hours, days, weeks, months just walking through the Texas desert sticking his thumb out looking for a ride to nowhere, but ultimately a ride to his own death at the hands of his driver. He was picked up by several people and he tested them. Ryder pulled out the knife and began to make his threats, giving his victim the chance to fight back… but they never did. Unhappy with the lack of balls from his prey, he killed them and hit the road once more. More drivers stopped and no one stood up to him. Then he was picked up by Jim Halsey and that was when things changed. Halsey was the only one to actually make a stand and fight back. That was when Ryder knew he found the person worthy enough to kill him so he could be with his wife once more. But Halsey was still green behind the gills and Ryder knew he had to push him, to mould him in a way to become the killer Ryder knew Halsey could be…
John Ryder: “You’re a smart kid, you figure it out.”
So there you have it. My theory on who John Ryder was and what he wanted. He wasn’t a ghost, he wasn’t some kind of supernatural entity. He was just a normal man that was pushed over the edge.
This article is written in memory of the great Rutger Hauer and my way of saying thanks for his creating one of cinema’s finest ever villains.
“You wanna know what happens to an eyeball when it gets punctured? Do you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy’s neck when his throat’s been slit?”
– John Ryder