This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.“You don’t know me. You don’t know what the fuck I want.” Of all the words that are spoken in The Passenger, an often tense yet throwaway thriller just on the cusp of something more, these are the ones that rattle most persistently around its world. Shouted out in a moment of crisis by Kyle Gallner’s mysterious and menacing Benson who has taken Johnny Berchtold‘s Bradley hostage, it is jarring in a number of ways. Some heighten the anxiety of the story, but others bring into focus its prevailing superficiality that it is never quite able to shake completely free of. On the one hand, there is something uniquely sinister about a man we know nothing about who impulsively commits an act he can never take back as it injects each situation with an inherent unpredictability. On the other, the frustrating impenetrability to who he is underneath this act can leave us in a darkness less frightening and more fleeting.
It is in this almost narrative no man’s land where The Passenger, written by Carter Smith and directed by Jack Stanley, stakes out its territory. Building around a brutal series of murders committed at the world’s saddest burger joint in an almost eerily empty town and the subsequent day spent roaming through it, the film is essentially a day in the life story about two people brought together by violence. Benson is the one committing the violence, providing a change of pace for Gallner who had previously been the one on the brief receiving end of murder in the recent Scream reboot, which he does in a macabre opening scene, dispatching their coworkers and managers with a shotgun. He does so in full view of a stunned Bradley whose first name is actually Randy though is called by his surname due to a nametag mistake. Rather than blow him to pieces as well, Benson instead gets him to help hide the bodies and then take off on the road. Randy, terrified by what he has just seen, goes along with it while trying to prevent more death from piling up in front of them. With Benson estimating they will have about seven hours to kill before the murders are discovered, it becomes a grim odyssey where the two visit a diner, mall, and school in search of something. Is it for fun? One last day of freedom? A final gasp for redemption? The initial dark thrills soon give way to a pondering yet perilous path as it gets increasingly lost in a wandering experience too well-acted to dismiss as boilerplate while still lacking a greater vision to ensure it rises to its full potential.
The Performances Bring Much-Needed Depth to ‘The Passenger’
For all the ways the film holds us at a bit at a distance, the performances do wonders in closing this gap. Gallner, who also was a small yet integral part of the recent Smile, has increasingly been carving out a presence in films that subtly grabs hold of you. There is a charming nature to the way he can embody a character just as there is something more buried under the surface. There is almost a temptation to compare him to someone like Jack Nicholson, who funnily enough starred in a 1975 film also called The Passenger with no connection to this one, in how he walks the line between charisma and creepiness. Where this only scratches the surface of what Gallner is doing comes down to the little moments when we see an unexpected vulnerability begin to break through the top layers of the performance.
When Benson first begins killing, he justifies it as being something he was doing for Randy. This becomes his recurring explanation for everything he does, but there are still cracks where we get glimpses of the truth lurking underneath. A scene where he grills Randy about whether he is a virgin, seeming like he is going to make fun of him for not having had sex yet, shifts a bit when he surprisingly praises him for this as that means he won’t have had a kid when he was still one himself. Put alongside another scene at Benson’s home, where his bedridden mother hardly acknowledges him except to ask for cigarettes, this takes on what could be a much deeper significance for him and raises a series of questions that are left lingering.
Does he hold resentment over being a mistake, born to parents who couldn’t take care of him? Are all of his criticisms of Randy as being a pushover merely projections for his own insecurities that he is cautious about not revealing though may have done so by accident? Gallner seems to smuggle in such depths to Benson in what could otherwise be an empty marionette of a man giving knockoff Tyler Durden-esque proclamations, but the accumulation of his work is still not quite enough to fully piece together who he is. The film is rather aware of this, with the aforementioned line about how Randy not knowing him being an explicit acknowledgment of how he doesn’t want to let anyone in and harbors a sensitivity to others presuming to try, though mere awareness of your central figure’s reluctance to reveal parts of themselves does not a robust character study make. Some of this comes down to how it is Randy who is the one the film is most interested in exploring and not Benson as we learn about how the former’s fears about standing up for himself stem from childhood trauma, because of course, that he has carried with him for years. Still, there was a sense that we were only just getting to know the man who set this all in motion when the film pulls us back from the most interesting undercurrents it only dips its toe into as opposed to diving in.
‘The Passenger’ Is Both Fearsome and Fleeting
This all makes for a unique cocktail of a thriller whose contradictions are perhaps best encapsulated in its final shot. Without tipping off what that is, it retroactively makes a seemingly insignificant selection of a stuffed animal into something more while also using it as a final punchline. This closing gag provides a last-ditch grasp at depth just as it feels like it is dicking around one final time. It isn’t as successful in everything it sets out to do along the way, but there will always be something intriguing about seeing Gallner take the wheel to try.
The Big Picture
- The performances in The Passenger close the gap between the audience and the story, especially Kyle Gallner’s portrayal of Benson.
- The film explores the dynamic between two characters brought together by violence, but fails to fully delve into the complexities of Benson’s character.
- The Passenger becomes both fearsome and fleeting, with a final shot that encapsulates its contradictions and provides a last-ditch attempt at depth.
The Passenger is available on VOD.