To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘The Passenger’ is a great crime thriller character study

“The Passenger” is an excellent film released last year that has not gotten its deserved attention. This hyper-violent, often disturbing road trip movie is filled with non-stop excellent performances, complex, well-written characters and a thrilling plot line that will keep audiences cringing at the edges of their seats for the entire hour and half runtime. 


Too much information about what goes on in this movie will take away from the thrill of experiencing it for the first time, but, put simply, a man who committed a horrific crime (Kyle Gallner) drives around with the teenage boy (Johnny Berchtold) he took hostage after the fact. The movie follows the two men as the deranged criminal attempts to bring his teenage hostage out of his shell.


Through description alone, it can be hard to tell whether this movie attempts to be comedic or not—a few upsetting moments of dark humor aside, this movie is not a comedy. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience of this film acts as a third party observer as a bad man does brutal things, often to innocent people, with little to no explanation. Scenes containing graphic gore are played seriously and the high tension established within the first 15 minutes of the film never goes away.


“The Passenger” tells a small story slowly. It isn’t simple; every character introduced is three-dimensional with a real backstory, either explained or implied. The two central characters in particular are explored in fantastic detail, while still leaving certain aspects of their past or their emotional state vague and up to interpretation. But the story itself all takes place in the course of one day through the perspective of these two men, and the audience is shown, in detail, everything of note that happens to them over the course of that day. It stays in a small geographic area: half of the scenes take place in either a car or one of two restaurants. And the movie only contains about 10 speaking roles. 


The enclosed and meticulously paced nature of the movie is the reason “The Passenger”’s build up works so well. As soon as the inciting incident occurs, the tension in the movie does not break or subside until the last scene. The last scene is perfect by the way. But because we are always stuck in the middle of these two men—when they open a door, walk down a hallway, grab something from the car—there is an incredible intimacy established between the characters and the viewer, one the audience never gets to take a break from. And all through this slow-paced build-up, “The Passenger” never stops feeling like a thriller; it never becomes boring even when what is happening on screen is undeniably boring, because the tension is just so high.


This is an impressive film from a practical level, as well as in its storytelling. “The Passenger” takes place in the middle of nowhere Midwest, often by a highway or in a grungy building, and yet the shot composition and particualrly the lighting is beautiful. Like weirdly so. A patch of dead forest and the inside of a truck stop have never looked so picturesque. The actors certainly deserve praise as well. Kyle Gallner is a recognizable up-and-coming actor who shines in this movie. At any given moment, he is terrifying or pitiful or heroic. The role he plays could easily be a cookie-cutter redneck or some predictable flavor of antihero, but he elevated the character into something special, something memorable. His co-star, Johnny Berchtold, is much less established, but no less stand-out in this movie. Berchtold is the real focul point of “The Passenger” as the plot revolves around his character growth. The multiple crucial scenes where his generally stoic and meek exterior breakdown were very powerful because of Berchtold’s performance.


It may seem unlikely for “The Passenger,” a drawn out, violent hostage movie, to be anything less than miserable to watch, but it isn’t, provided you are the target audience. Which I’ll be the first to admit is a small group. If you don’t mind (or if you even enjoy) gore, revenge plots, non-stop tension and dialogue driven action movies, “The Passenger” is definitely worth checking out.

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