“You don’t know me. You don’t know what the fuck I want.” These are the phrases that reverberate the loudest in The Passenger, an often frightening yet throwaway thriller on the verge of something more. It’s disturbing in a variety of ways because it’s yelled out in a crisis by Kyle Gallner’s strange and threatening Benson, who has held Johnny Berchtold’s Bradley hostage. Some heighten the story’s uneasiness, while others highlight its prevalent superficiality, which it is never able to break fully free of.
On the one hand, there is something inherently evil about a man we know nothing about who impulsively does an act he can never undo since it adds an element of unpredictability to each circumstance. On the other hand, the irritating impenetrability of who he is beneath this performance might leave us in a less terrifying and more ephemeral darkness.
The Passenger, written by Carter Smith and directed by Jack Stanley, marks out its territory in this nearly narrative no man’s land. The film is primarily a day in the life narrative of two individuals pulled together by violence, centred on a violent series of murders perpetrated at the world’s saddest burger establishment in an almost eerily vacant town and the ensuing day spent travelling around it. Benson is the one who does the violence, a change of pace from Gallner, who was previously on the receiving end of murder in the latest Scream revival, which he accomplishes in a horrific opening scene, slaughtering their coworkers and supervisors with a shotgun.
He does so in full view of a surprised Bradley, whose first name is Randy but is referred to by his surname owing to a nametag error. Rather than blowing him up, Benson convinces him to help him conceal the dead before driving away. Randy, scared by what he has just witnessed, goes through with it, hoping to keep additional bodies from stacking up in front of them. With Benson thinking they have around seven hours until the killings are found, it begins a bleak adventure in which the two visit a diner, mall, and school in quest of something.
Is it only for fun? One more day of liberty? A last-ditch attempt at redemption? The first dark thrills quickly give way to a thoughtful yet risky route as it becomes progressively lost in a meandering experience that is too well-acted to dismiss as boilerplate while yet missing a larger vision to ensure it rises to its full potential.
For all the ways the film keeps us at a remove, the performances do wonders to bridge that gap. Gallner, who was also a minor but important part of the recent Smile, has been building out a presence in films that gradually pull you. His ability to represent a persona has a pleasant aspect, yet there is something more lurking beyond the surface. In a way he rides the edge between charm and creepiness, he reminds me of Jack Nicholson, who, coincidentally, acted in a 1975 picture named The Passenger with no link to this one. The few times when we see an unanticipated vulnerability starting to peek through the top layers of the performance are when this merely scrapes the surface of what Gallner is accomplishing.
When Benson initially starts murdering, he justifies it by saying it’s for Randy. This becomes his repeated reason for everything he does, yet there are still fractures where we can see the reality hiding behind the surface. A scenario in which he quizzes Randy about whether he is a virgin, seemingly intending to mock him for not having had sex yet, shifts a little when he suddenly compliments him for this because it means he won’t have had a child while he was still a virgin. When juxtaposed with another scenario at Benson’s house, where his ill mother hardly notices him except to ask for smokes, this takes on a far deeper importance for him and presents a series of unanswered issues.
Is he resentful of being a mistake, born to parents who couldn’t care for him? Are all of his judgements of Randy as a pushover really reflections of his own vulnerabilities, which he is wary of disclosing despite the fact that he may have done so by accident? Gallner appears to smuggle such dimensions to Benson in what could otherwise be an empty marionette of a guy making fake Tyler Durden-esque proclamations, but the sum of his work is still insufficient to truly put together who he is.
The film is aware of this, with the aforementioned line about Randy not knowing him being an explicit acknowledgement of how he doesn’t want to let anyone in and harbours a sensitivity to others attempting to do so, though mere awareness of your central figure’s reluctance to reveal parts of themselves does not constitute a robust character study. Some of this is due to the fact that the film focuses on Randy rather than Benson, as we find that the former’s anxieties about standing up for himself derive from childhood trauma, which he has carried with him for years.
Still, there was a sense that we were only just starting to know the guy who started it all when the film pulls us back from the most fascinating undercurrents, which it merely dips its toe into rather than diving into.
In The Passenger, Kyle Gallner plays Benson.Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
This all adds up to a one-of-a-kind thriller whose inconsistencies are arguably best summarised in the closing shot. Without revealing what it is, it retrospectively transforms an apparently inconsequential choice of a stuffed animal into something greater while also serving as a final joke. This final humour delivers a last-ditch grasp at depth just as it appears to be dicking around one last time. It isn’t as effective in everything it attempts along the road, but there’s always something exciting about watching Gallner behind the wheel.