(1986)2.5Brian J. DillardRutger Hauer's flair for villainy is well established, as is Jennifer Jason Leigh's chameleon-like ability to inhabit any sort of role, especially one with a trashy and/or melancholy tinge. The most surprising performance in this highly effective thriller, then, belongs to C. Thomas Howell, who grows convincingly unhinged over the course of 98 minutes of highway terror. Battered and bruised, with his puppy-dog good looks obscured by roadside grime, Howell provides a believable everyman stand-in for the audience. Stalked by a madman, stranded in the back roads of Texas, and on the run from misguided small-town police, Howell's clean-cut Chicago boy suffers through every city dweller's road trip nightmare. Eric Red's screenplay is most effective in its early scenes, which utilize psychological terror rather than the action-film-style car chases that characterize the climax. Director Robert Harmon paces the film admirably, providing frequent stops for breath even as the overall level of tension steadily rises. However, it is cinematographer John Seale, who would go on to great acclaim on such films as The English Patient, whose desolate Texas backdrop provides The Hitcher with much of its resonance. Jonathan Mostow's surprise hit Breakdown would mine the same territory with even more outré violence a decade later, but The Hitcher's climactic atrocities left an indelible pop-culture impression on audiences who caught the film on cable and video throughout the '80s and beyond.