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MOVIE REVIEW: “THE PASSENGER” Takes the Wheel for a Dark Trip Down Memory Lane

Friday, August 25, 2023 | Reviews


Starring Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold and Liza Weil
Directed by Carter Smith
Written by Jack Stanley Blumhouse Television/MGM+

THE PASSENGER is the newest in road trip horror from director Carter Smith (THE RUINS, SWALLOWED). When his co-worker Benson (Kyle Gallner) embarks on a random killing spree, the directionless Randy (Johnny Berchtold) is forced to accompany him on an adventure where both of their darkest secrets will be revealed.

Smith’s subtle odyssey is a suspenseful ride from its horrendously upsetting inciting incident to its gripping conclusion. The film’s world feels isolated in a way only small towns ever start to when you want to break away from them. Empty city streets and shopping malls set the stage for an examination of what it means to be a passenger in life. While it can be bleak and depressing, the true victory comes in escaping complacency.

Our two leads are broken characters in a horrible situation where the personal issues of one always mirror the other. They share in their unconventional relationships with their mothers and harrowing school-oriented trauma. Benson serves as a cruel spirit for Bradley ala A Christmas Carol, guiding him through a twisted path of repressed memories and guilt. What begins as an understated picture of shattered people slowly unravels as everything comes bubbling to the surface.

More than anything else, Carter Smith’s direction cannot be glossed over. His excellent instincts for actors and allowing shots to play out in full means the story is told in the most engaging way possible. A deeply complex script penned by Jack Stanley creates an eerily realistic portrait of incidentally building a life that you long to escape from. When paired with art director Jonathan Cappel’s keen eye, this thriller manages to become psychologically invasive.

Impressive technical prowess only takes you so far, and luckily THE PASSENGER sees two masterful performances from Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold. The timid Bradley has been taken captive by dejected loner Benson after a massacre at their workplace. These two conflicting personalities being placed in a vehicle together calls to mind Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL, only with an added horror tinge.

Bradley is eternally on the outside looking in. After the pain he has encountered, he’s never wanted better for himself in love, or in his career. The contradiction between our slacker lead character and the outgoing Benson helps this villain feel like a force of nature. The intensity comes from Benson’s genuine belief that making Bradley face his demons will help him turn his life around. Yet, as the viewer spends more time with him, they’re left to question whether there is any method to his madness. He is violent, irrational, and quick to prod at the sensitive spots of anyone’s mind. This is all shown through Gallner’s face and a series of short monologues that could come across as meandering in the hands of a less-skilled performer.

Special praise should be given to Liza Weil, who portrays a former teacher of Bradley’s. When her character is described early on, she is laden with sadness and failure. This differs once the audience is introduced to her, and Weil carries the sympathetic weight wonderfully. THE PASSENGER is at its best whenever it peels back the veil surrounding the major players and broadcasts the realism of their insecurities.

As a thriller, THE PASSENGER possesses every emotion one could anticipate: suspense, anxiety, and the edge-of-your-seat feeling we all crave. As a character study, it uses the bonding of two hugely different people in a demonstration of how universal trauma is. Every scene is played pitch perfect, with a sprinkling of dark humor and societal satire for good measure. A brilliantly humanistic feature, this is one you’ll want to buckle in for.


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