A unique light went out in our world this week with the sudden passing of one of our most versatile and eccentric acting voices, Rutger Hauer. The Dutch actor was 75 years old and had populated our filmatic landscape in such iconic movies as Blade Runner, Sin City and Batman Begins and I think I speak for most fans of Mr. Hauer when I say that 75 years was not nearly enough time for a man who kept us on the edge of our seats with his off-kilter choices that came to life in exciting and yes, disturbing ways.
Perhaps no movie better personified the Rutger Hauer mystique than the 1986 cult movie, The Hitcher, a piece of movie making still celebrated today as one of the most riveting and disturbing thrillers to come out of the Ronald Reagan generation.
Hauer was understated brilliance as a menacing hitchhiker picked up by a post-E.T. C. Thomas Howell while on a cross-country driving trip. To say that things immediately go bad for Howell would be an immense understatement and pretty soon the lad is on the run for his life from Hauer’s psychopath, embarking on a high-stakes game of cat and mouse across a desert that looks as if it’s survived a post-apocalyptic war – barely.
Of all of his movies – and Hauer, at last count, was at least in 172 productions – it is perhaps his role as hitcher John Ryder that most movie fans will remember him for. Sleek and piercing, his tanned skin looking almost baked on, Hauer was the human equivalent of the shark in Jaws in director Robert Harmon’s cautionary tale. His eyes are steady and yet cold, looking to the horizon and looking past nothingness all at once; his was the perfect foil for C. Thomas Howell’s clean cut city boy: Sanity meets insanity and winner takes all.
A classic exchange between Howell and Hauer in The Hitcher terrified me in my youth and perhaps illustrates best why memorial pieces such as this one might just gravitate a little longer on this movie than on some others (save Blade Runner I would wager):
Jim Halsey: What do you want? What’s so funny?
John Ryder: (stops laughing) That’s what the other guy said.
Jim Halsey: What other guy?
John Ryder: That guy back there, the one we just passed. The guy who picked me up before you did.
Jim Halsey: That was him in there?
John Ryder: Sure it was. He couldn’t have walked very far.
Jim Halsey: Why’s that?
John Ryder: Because I cut off his legs…and his arms…and his head. And I’m going to do the same to you.
Mark Dinning of Empire called The Hitcher a “unique cult favorite” and surely Rutger Hauer was the fuel that kept the movie’s engine running long after it would have sputtered out and died with a lesser actor in the difficult part.
And that might be the ultimate summation of why Rutger Hauer was such a consummate actor with a tremendous fan following: The Dutch actor who looked for all the world like a blond, blue-eyed model who had taken a dangerous turn gave audiences characters such as the one in The Hitcher a sort of wounded vulnerability. He lowered your defenses when you ordinarily would have known better and he lured you in slowly and deliberately as you quietly empathized with whatever unspoken pain he was able to transmit across vast pounds of celluloid and he briefly made you care. The damaged gate, the deeper than deep blue of his eyes, his unkempt hair in perpetual need of a good comb all worked overtime to showcase the human side of madness and just when you were close enough to him he would pounce with sudden and urgent precision, grabbing you and taking you on a rollercoaster ride with his troubled characters through cinematic hell.
Of course all of that was just a fiction and by all accounts Hauer was a teddy bear of a man. In a statement today, Gene Simmons who was a friend of the man said, “He was always a gentleman, kind and compassionate,” while no less of an auteur than Guillermo del Toro called Hauer “an intense, deep, genuine and magnetic actor that brought truth, power and beauty to his films.”
The outpouring from his peers is proof that Hollywood and the world has lost a singular actor. Rest easy, Mr. Hauer. You will be missed.