The Passenger

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The psychopath as psychotherapist is The Passenger’s fresh offering, though it serves up this unfamiliar idea in pretty familiar trailer-trash style.

So, no, not the iconic Antonioni movie from 1975, nor the iconic 1977 Iggy Pop song, though thematically this The Passenger is in the same territory – it’s about a guy who is not in the driving seat and is spending his time letting the world go by. Agency is the name of the game, in other words, with Randy (Johnny Berchtold) learning how to get it, and Benson (Kyle Gallner) learning the perils of having too much of it.

Randy works at a fast-food joint tacked on to a semi-derelict gas station and is the weakling bullied by everyone who wants to have a go. He’s known as Bradley at work. That’s actually his last name but he hasn’t got the voice to pipe up and say so.

Temperamentally his opposite is Benson, the co-worker who reacts with maximum prejudice one day, having snapped after watching Bradley/Randy being bullied once too often by resident dick and fellow burger-flipper Chris (Matthew Laureano).

Without giving too much away, shit happens, spectacularly, and the two of them hit the road, Benson because the law will soon be after him and Randy (as Benson insists on calling him) because Benson has forced him to at the point of a gun.

Why take Randy along? A question The Passenger doesn’t quite get round to answering. Nor is it entirely sure if this is the story of bad-guy Benson or milquetoast Randy.

Benson, teacher Miss Beard and Randy in a diner
Benson, teacher Miss and Randy

An odd-couple, road-movie, rite-of-passage affair with sprinkles is what director Carter Smith and writer Jack Stanley give us, Smith delivering the down-at-heel Americana of gas stations, diners and malls while Stanley provides the confrontational encounters which Benson sets up for Randy, in an attempt to make him man up – an old girlfriend of Randy who broke up with him without ever saying why, and, ultimately, the second-grade teacher Randy accidentally injured all those years ago and who, it’s suggested, might be the reason for his meekness.

Therapy at the end of a gun is a novel idea, and the psycho as therapist is too. And if it doesn’t always stack up there is such power in Kyle Gallner’s performance as Benson – bristling, permanently pissed off, ready to pop – that it’s easy to overlook the unlikeliness of it all.

Gallner is one of those actors who should already be famous but isn’t. He’s been good if not great in everything he’s been in, going back at least to Red, the Brian Cox movie from 2008, but more obviously in the superbly odd Dinner in America. It was the TV show Veronica Mars that gave him his break but that was nearly 20 years ago. So, again, what’s the hold-up?

Johnny Berchtold does what he can with Randy, the nothing character who will, screenwriting’s iron rules stipulate, have his epiphany, his moment in the sun. Randy has an emotional arc to complete and it’s to Berchtold’s credit as an actor that he doesn’t overdo this – Randy does not become Rambo.

They are a good pairing and there is good stuff in this movie, not least the writing by Stanley, who makes this more nuanced than it sounds in my description. Fleshed-out side characters, smart transitions and an awareness of where the clichés are (everywhere, in something like this) make Stanley, a relative newcomer (this is his second movie) one to watch. Stanley, director Carter Smith and the two leads also resist the urge to make this a coded gay love story. Or maybe that’s exactly what it is – it would explain a lot.

The Passenger – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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