Review: 'The Passenger' is a violent but worthwhile ride


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Oct 01, 2023

Review: 'The Passenger' is a violent but worthwhile ride

Johnny Berchtold, left, and Kyle Gallner star in the violent thriller ‘The Passenger.’ Directed by Carter Smith, it was filmed in the New Orleans area in 2022, although it is set in a generic, unnamed

Johnny Berchtold, left, and Kyle Gallner star in the violent thriller ‘The Passenger.’ Directed by Carter Smith, it was filmed in the New Orleans area in 2022, although it is set in a generic, unnamed American town.

It is a textbook example of something being both a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, the streaming revolution has given movie and TV fans more quality viewing choices than they could have ever previously dreamed of having.

On the other, today’s entertainment landscape is littered with so many streaming services offering so many viewing options that the simple act of deciding what to watch on any given night has a way of devolving into a head-spinning exercise in stream-surfing frustration.

In the process, countless small but worthwhile projects risk getting lost in the shuffle.

Case in point: the New Orleans-shot hostage thriller “The Passenger,” which is a worthwhile ride — although finding which streaming platforms are hosting it before its debut on the streamer MGM+ later this year is a needle-in-a-haystack experience.

(Be honest: Raise your hand if you even knew there was an MGM+.)

That’s a shame all around.

That’s not to say director Carter Smith’s blood-spattered exploration of the lingering effects of trauma is a perfect film. With one foot planted in the world of horror and the other in the world of the crime drama, it is formulaic enough to be predictable at times and talky enough to bog down occasionally from a storytelling perspective.

At the same time, “The Passenger” is also intense enough and affecting enough that it can be counted on to grab viewers’ attention and hold it, the same way a particularly vivid nightmare might.

By the time the closing credits roll, some might find themselves in need of a couple of deep breaths — or maybe a couple of tall drinks — just to help shake it all off before slipping back into real life.

Set in a nondescript Anytown — the depressing kind, not the cute kind — it opens on a grease-choked burger joint imaginatively named Burgers Burgers Burgers.

There, the mild-mannered Randy (played by Johnny Berchtold) meekly but faithfully fulfills his daily obligation as a dedicated, conscientious slinger of hash. Always on time. Thorough. Never complains.

He’s also painfully awkward, his scarecrow frame locked in a permanent whole-body clench as hints of tears defy gravity at the corners of his eyes. At any given moment, he looks as if he’s equally liable to either explode in rage or dissolve into sobs.

Picture Michael Cera with every ounce of humor and joy drained from his body, leaving behind only anxiety and agita.

To paraphrase Tom Petty: Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked him around some.

People being the way people are, that makes Randy a walking victim for bullies and buttheads. But when just such a co-worker begins putting the screws to him one day, another co-worker — named Benson and played with a menacing charm by Kyle Gallner — takes it upon himself to end Randy’s torment.

Like, permanently. And very, very violently.

That forces Randy and Benson on a shared journey in which Benson, between outbursts of cruelty, sets out to teach Randy to stand up for himself, take control of things and to stop being a passenger in his own life.

Without giving anything away, that journey includes a visit to figures from Randy’s past that both explain his troubles while also casting a lens on the different ways people deal with past trauma.

Thoughtful stuff there, and Carter — working from a script by Jack Stanley — deserves credit for elevating his film beyond its troubling outbursts of bloody rage.

He also shows he knows how to build suspense effectively, starting with a steady simmer and then, like the proverbial frog in a boiling pot, gradually turning up the heat. Over and over again, “The Passenger” builds to scenes that thrum with stomach-knotting intensity — at which point Carter backs it down and repeats the process, like a roller coaster with a mean streak.

Perhaps the two biggest reasons Smith’s film works to the extent that it does, however, and the two best reasons to recommend it, are the virtuosic performances of Gallner and Berchtold.

Gallner has the longer résumé of the two, with a healthy list of credits stretching back to 2000, but neither actor is a household name. Yet. Here, both far exceed expectations with dialed-in, gut-punch performances.

If there’s any justice in Hollywood, their phones will be ringing soon with calls from interested producers and casting agents.

They’ll have to find Carter’s film first, though. That’s not a given.

But, just like everyone else who seeks it out, they’ll be rewarded if they do.

Mike Scott can be reached at [email protected].

SNAPSHOPT: A violence-prone hostage thriller.

CAST: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil, Billy Slaughter.

DIRECTOR: Carter Smith.

RATED: Unrated, warrants R

TIME: 1 hour 38 minutes.

WHEN AND WHERE: Begins streaming Friday (Aug. 4) on on-demand platforms including Vudu and AppleTV, with a release on MGM+ later this year.