Some people need to face their demons, even if they’re forced to at gunpoint. At least that’s the conceit of Carter Smith’s The Passenger, a white-knuckled thriller that redefines the term, “therapy session.” This Blumhouse indie might seem like your basic psychopath/his impressionable hostage story, but underneath the carnage it touches on a lot more — millennial fatalism, capitalist failing, and the search for one’s identity. Reminiscent of character-driven movies from the ’70s, it unspools a simple narrative while retaining a rich subtext. Imagine if Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces went on a shooting spree instead of revisiting his childhood home and you’ll get an idea of what you’re in for.
Set in a desolate town that can only be described as Nowheresville, America, we open on Randy Bradley (Johnny Berchtold), a malnourished 21-year-old, who awakens from a nightmare regarding an incident from his childhood. The kid works at a local fast-food joint, which looks like a relic from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Shot in murky orange, beige, and brown pallets, this depressing spot could represent any American business that favors meekness over individuality. It’s a perfect place for a submissive like Randy whose porn-addicted boss calls him into his office one morning and offers him a promotion. In a humorous twist, the boss realizes he doesn’t know Randy’s name since he gave him the wrong nametag months back. Randy admits he chose to wear the nametag instead of asking for a new one.
Capitalism hasn’t looked this pathetic since Office Space, though The Passenger’s world isn’t funny as much as cringey. The opening sets the tone for a movie, which balances horror and social commentary somewhat seamlessly, at least for a while. The screenplay by Jack Stanley has some interesting insights, including how people who live in these kinds of austere environments can turn on each other instead of the powers that be. This is apparent when Randy is bullied by a co-worker, Chris (Matthew Laureano), and his giggly girlfriend, Jess (Jordan Sherley). Taking advantage of Randy’s submissiveness, Chris forces him to eat a day-old cheeseburger while Jess cackles gleefully. Meanwhile, another coworker, Benson (an electric Kyle Gallner), watches them with a malignant glare while mopping the floors. For Benson, something breaks inside before becoming painfully clear.
In a scene that’s as disturbing as it is sadly familiar these days, Benson walks to his car, grabs a shotgun, and slaughters everyone in the restaurant except for Randy. Sparing Randy isn’t an act of kindness as much as a way for him to make sense of the situation. Figuring they’ve got seven hours before the cops discover the bodies in the freezer, Benson forces Randy to come with him on a joyride. From there, the movie becomes a disquieting journey into the disturbed psyches and backgrounds of both characters, mostly Randy’s. Benson makes it his mission to find out what made Randy so weak; perhaps if he can unlock this mystery, he can also understand his own issues. It’s a classic case of transference, albeit with a shotgun. Throughout the day they’ll stop at several places which hold a special resonance for Randy, including a visit to see his ex-girlfriend (Lupe Leon) and the former teacher he accidentally blinded (Liza Weil).
Like all effective road movies, the emotional core resides in the difference between these two disparate characters, not necessarily their journey. While Benson is fueled by a morbid cynicism since he just committed multiple murders and his life is basically over, Randy follows his lead because that’s what he does best. However, they have one thing in common: both are outliers in a society that gives them nothing and expects everything in return. One wishes Randy’s grievances were a little more complicated and existential (blinding a second-grade teacher? yawn), but these scenarios are choreographed with such a combustible mixture of dark humor and menace, you become immersed in them anyway.
With a sardonic smirk, Swedish death metal shirt, and greasy mullet, Benson is one of the most interesting characters to come out of a Blumhouse film in recent memory. Even as he exudes a unique empathy for Randy, he’s still incredibly frustrated with his passivity. Why doesn’t he fight back for God’s sake? Of course, he’s not really screaming at Randy as much as himself.
In an Oscar-worthy performance (even for such a small film), Gallner — who’s been in a slew of horror titles including Jennifer’s Body, Smile, and the latest Scream — injects his character with a Bruce Dern-inspired unpredictability that’s equally frightening, hilarious, and devastating. In one day, he intends to exorcize the evil spirits from both of their souls. Such an act requires him to strip himself of any pretense and wrestle his ghosts to the mat. The acting is grade-A, even as the film flirts with B-material.
Unfortunately, the character disintegrates into a noise box towards the end as the narrative loses its thread, recedes from its carefully rendered themes, and becomes a bland exercise in genre. Although Smith’s direction maintains the tension we’ve seen in his past films like The Ruins and Jamie Marks is Dead, he spends too much time on Benson’s irascible self-destruction instead of fleshing out the significance of their journey. There are simply too many scenes with Benson pointing a gun at people and yelling, “Shut the fuck up!” After a while, it feels rote and rehashed in a movie that was anything but up to that point. Still, even with the road bumps near the end, it’s a thrilling ride overall.