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The Passenger (2023) Review

Not to be confused with the Spanish road trip horror of the same name, The Passenger, the new film from Carter Smith (The Ruins, Swallowed), opens with a woman, blood spurting from her eye socket crawling towards a young boy. It’s a nightmare and Randy (Johnny Berchtold, Snow Falls, Murder Among Friends) is woken from it to start another tedious day at Burgers, Burgers, Burgers. He should have taken it as an omen and stayed home.

As they’re getting the diner ready to open, one of the other employees starts harassing him, something that seems to be a regular occurrence. Benson (Kyle Gallner, Mother, May I?, Ghosts of War) watches in disgust before walking out to have a smoke. Then, as if something just snapped, he pulls a shotgun from his car and goes back inside, killing everyone except Randy, whom he takes hostage.

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From here on, The Passenger turns into a road movie, but not the Hitcher or Natural Born Killers adjacent one I was expecting from the plot description and the director’s previous films. It’s as much a trip through the past and the traumas it holds for both of these men as it is one across physical distances.

After a brief stop at his mother’s, which gives us a glimpse at his less-than-ideal background, Benson tells Randy he wants to help him. This begins a dive into Randy’s past that includes a stop at the mall where his ex Lisa (Lupe Leon, The Lady Makers), and a former teacher Miss Beard (Liza Weil, Little Fish, Strange Pond, The Cleaning Lady) whose eyepatch marks her as the woman in the opening nightmare.

At one point, Benson describes his unwilling passenger as “fixable”. He sees Randy as intelligent but too weak to stand up for himself. And, by forcing him to face at least some of his issues, he intends to get him to grow a backbone. He’s like an extremely toxic version of the worst of the self-help gurus. And after Randy gets a call from his momother,ther it’s obvious he needs some extreme help.

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This also shades Benson’s character somewhat, making him more than just your typical cinema psycho. There’s no redemption or justification for his actions at the start of the film, but he becomes something more than just the standard Hollywood psycho, just as The Passenger is something other than the typical Hollywood thriller.

The Passenger is as much a dark drama about two broken people, both of whom have repressed way too much of their emotions, but have been pushed in opposite directions by it. Smith and writer Jack Stanley (Lou) wrap the narrative in the guise of a crime thriller with some horror elements, but its hardest punches tend to be the emotional ones in between the violence.

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The acting is impressive across the board, with everyone’s performance hitting the mark. But with much of the film featuring the two leads alone with each other, it’s Berchtold and Gallner who really get to shine. Having just seen him in Mother, May I? I knew what Gallner was capable of, but Berchtold was a surprise. This film should be a breakout for both of them.

A ride well worth taking, The Passenger is a hard film to watch, but most viewers will find it harder to turn it off. It’s brutal both physically and emotionally, and becomes increasingly more suspenseful as it builds to a seemingly inevitable climax.

Paramount will release The Passenger to VOD and Digital Platforms on August 4th. MGM+ which co-produced the film with Blumhouse TV will have it available for streaming later in the year.

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