Michealangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) is one of those special films where the director manages to create a unique and haunting sense of place, prior to introducing his characters. As the lead wades his way into the shot, through challenging sand dunes in the film’s opening scenes, the pace is set for the rest of this intelligent and innovative thriller.
Initially a tale of identity theft, the film also explores notions of truth, coincidence and fate, not only within the film, but also in the viewers perception of events. Jack Nicholson, plays David Locke, a Gonzo documentarian living in Africa, whilst attempting to complete a job on Chad rebels overcoming the oppressive government. In his lodgings he meets charismatic stranger, Robertson (Charles Mulvehill). The two strike up a close friendship, but when Locke finds his friend lifeless on his bed, he decides to escape from the misery and trappings of his own life, by assuming the dead man’s identity.
Up to this moment, the film offers no musical score, just the breath and the breeze. As Locke gets to action, hacking away at the photograph in his passport, audio of the mens' initial introduction overlaps and it’s here where, Antonioni uses the sway of the camera to transport the viewer back and forth through time, until a clear picture of their relationship has been painted. As Locke hovers above Robertson’s body and stares into his eyes, there is a level of ambiguity, both in the nature of their relationship and the circumstances surrounding the death. Later, the nameless “girl” played by Maria Scheneider, will reverse this move on Locke himself, signalling his fate.
Leaving Africa for Europe, Locke finds himself in meetings with gunrunners and becomes aware that he has assumed the identity of a dangerous man. Having dumped his old life, in exchange for one much worse and with greater complications, Locke (now Robinson) finds himself being investigated by his wife, who believes Robinson may have information on the cause of death.
Short on traditional “action”, the film relies on mounting tension via Locke’s angst and the net that slowly closes in on him. Reading similar to Patricia Highsmith’s tales and no doubt, casting influence on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), the viewer is asked to sit back and witness the protagonist bury himself alive.
It sounds like a slapstick affair, a hopeless fool on the run with a disastrous assumed identity but Antonioni’s direction and a brilliantly charismatic performance from Jack Nicholson make this thriller something else. The Passenger is intriguing from start to finish, fantasy and reality repeatedly and disastrously clash throughout. Locke is a discontented soul who runs away from his life and tries, yet fails, to run away from himself. Although finally liberated, he eventually learns that the grass isn’t always greener and ultimately leaves us behind bars, losing himself to the other side forever and completely.
The Passenger is back in cinemas from 4 Jan 2019