This movie is an evolution of earlier films of this type, beginning with Spielberg’s first smash-hit, Duel (based on a script by the fabulously talented horror writer Richard Matheson, and starring Dennis Weaver in what is arguably his best role ever; utterly convincing as a mild-mannered travelling salesman who unintentionally angers the driver of a huge truck and for the course of the film, is on a hell-bound journey while ironically trying to escape this demon), as well as the classic first Hitcher film scripted by Eric Red, Hitcher (1986), which is a cracking whizz of a thriller, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and he also wrote The Hitcher II: I’ve Been Waiting (2007), but sadly, even though it still has C. Thomas Howell (still looking good), this is far from scary and doesn’t merit comparing with the first.
In other words, adolescent innocents are stalked by a psychopath while driving on the highway. While this is a gripping movie — the tension, the acting, the dialogue all work — the one element that frustrates, overwhelmingly so, is the brother in this film, who brings on/invites all the trouble that later occurs.
For that reason, you’re continuously anger/p*issed off that the idiot older brother, has initiated the trouble because of his dumbass prankster behaviour. Having said that, it’s still a tightly plotted, high testosterone movie, with great performances by Steven Zahn — the idiot older brother/prankster — Paul Walker — convincing in his role, and has a certain charm on-screen that you can’t help but be drawn into — and the always gorgeous, multi-talentedly convincing Leelee Sobieski (and who, no matter how many years pass by, seems to keep her teenager looks; I think there’s a picture in an attic somewhere. The psycho of the film is, appropriately, relentless and terrifying; like all psychos, bless em: nothing will satisfy him save death of those he stalks and, if necessary, himself. But he’s too clever by half.
The only really damning criticism of the film is that Steven Zahn/older brother is such an absolutely irritating frickin moron, So irritating, because you know he initiated the nightmare with his prank that he insists his younger brother should play, that the rest of the film remains on a level of tension entirely to do with the audience’s awareness that he‘s caused the problems in the first place. I just wish they’d found another way of getting chased and terrified by the psycho, because Zahn has a natural charm on-screen and it’s a shame to spend time during the movie thinking “turdbrain!” “MUPPET!”, and “why does his brother go along with this cosmic-sized a-hole?!”
But please do be reassured the movie is genuinely a fuel-driven, high-testosterone, relentless ride of tension and anxiety and the dramatic scenes, of which they are plenty, are played very well. (Interestingly, too, J. J. Abrams co-wrote this script; it must have been one of his early ones, but you can see already his understanding of dramatic plot developments and intense scenes; no wonder he’s since become one of the darlings of Hollywood – one thinks of his scripts for Mission Impossible 3 (Single Disc), Region 2, not viewable outside Europe — this is the link for Region 1 DVD version, besides his originating Lost, the inexplicable worldwide smash hit series, which I did admittedly want to smash and hit often.) Worth watching? You betcha. Just make sure you keep your seat belts on when you see it, because it’s one helluva ride.