Powerful performances elevate this hour and a half therapy as horror exercise.
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“The Passenger” (available on VOD beginning Friday, Aug. 4 before premiering on MGM+ later in 2023) is the second film with this title I’ve reviewed in as many years. My review of the 2022 Spanish sci-fi horror flick is available here.
Randy Bradley (Johnny Berchtold) is a 21-year-old young man with two first names and very few prospects. His only girlfriend is an ex named Lisa (Lupe Leon) who dumped him a coupla years back when her cat died. He works a dead-end job at a fast food joint called Burgers Burgers Burgers where he reports to foul-mouthed, porno-watching manager Hardy (Billy Slaughter) and gets bullied by his insipid co-worker Chris (Matthew Laureano). When Randy’s quiet colleague Benson (Kyle Gallner) intervenes on his behalf to defend him there are dire, tragic and violent consequences.
Randy and Benson flee the scene. You’d expect them to split town, but they don’t. They hit a diner for breakfast and make visits to Benson’s Ma (Sue Rock), Lisa at her Build-A-Bear Workshop-esque place of employment, Randy’s former elementary school and to the home of Miss Beard (Liza Weil, doing a lot with a little), a teacher whose life Randy had a profound effect upon and vice versa. Benson’s unhinged but he believes in Randy and genuinely wants him to better his station in life.
“The Passenger” is the second film in as many weeks to give me strong “The Hitcher” and “Collateral” vibes after the ragin’ and Nicolas Cage-ing “Sympathy for the Devil” (review here). It’s directed by Carter Smith (he helmed 2008’s Scott Smith adaptation “The Ruins” as well as last year’s drug mule horror flick “Swallowed”) and scripted by Jack Stanley (he previously penned the Allison Janney Netflix action vehicle “Lou”).
“The Passenger” is predominantly a two-hander that’s propelled by the powerful performances of Berchtold and Gallner.
I’ve been a fan of Gallner’s dating back to a series of haunting guest appearances on FX’s “The Shield.” He’s a “Scream King” of sorts having appeared in “Jennifer’s Body,” 2010’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, Kevin Smith’s “Red State,” “Scream” (2022) and last year’s surprise breakout horror hit “Smile.” Gallner is reliably good and does the damned near impossible here (with the assistance of Stanley’s writing) by making a mass shooter somewhat sympathetic. (The fact that he looks like Sturgill Simpson (one of my favorite singer-songwriters) when donning a cap doesn’t hurt matters either.)
I’m not nearly as familiar with Berchtold. The only other film I’ve seen of his is the uninspired “Snow Falls” (review here) from earlier this year. He was fine in that inane flick, but he’s markedly improved with much better material here. Randy is a sympathetic character for whom it’s easy to root. I wanted him to emerge from his circumstances not only unscathed but successful. This is a testament to both Berchtold’s performance and Stanley’s writing.
“The Passenger” is an intense, hour and a half therapy session disguised as a horror flick. Smith and Stanley ratchet up the tension expertly and Berchtold and Gallner do a helluva job selling it. Come for the thrills; stay for the performances.