Rating: 4 out of 5.

Queer director Carter Smith’s latest, The Passenger, is a colorful, gorgeously-filmed horror/thriller that also happens to be an intimate character study. Scream kings Kyle Gallner (2022’s Scream, Smile) and Johnny Berchtold (Snow Falls, A Hard Problem) headline this disturbing story depicting an intense rampage across a dying small town. Lou scribe Jack Stanley layers his two leads with unspoken past traumas and complex personalities, building to a tragic crescendo. Sympathy for a shooter is certainly not an easy feat to pull off, yet The Passenger’s script somehow accomplishes exactly that.

Randy Bradley (Berchtold) goes through life at a distance, seemingly afraid to emotionally connect with anything or anyone. In the film’s opening scene, Randy awakens from a horrible nightmare. Randy is still haunted by a horrible event that happened in second grade—as a result, he cannot have normal human reactions to stimuli in his everyday life. At Randy’s fast food job at Burgers Burgers Burgers, horrible Hardy the Manager (Billy Slaughter, Happy Death Day, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon) has taken a liking to Randy, despite referring to him unironically as Bradley. Everyone at work calls him Bradley too, and Randy doesn’t bother correcting them. Berchtold portrays Randy with little confidence and a quiet speech pattern barely above a whisper. Even when Marty offers to put in a good word for him for a manager position at a new spot opening soon, Randy barely reacts.

The bullying at work goes too far; coworker Chris (Matthew Laureano) and his girlfriend (Jordan Sherley, Do Revenge, Gemini Man) taunt Randy, forcing him to eat and swallow a smelly old burger. The only other person on shift, Benson (Gallner), completely snaps. He goes out to his car, grabs a shotgun from his trunk, and proceeds to massacre the coworkers inside. Through it all, Randy stands frozen in place. Afterward, Benson commands Randy to help him clean up the mess he has left behind. With the bodies safely stowed in the freezer, the stage is set for an intense road trip between the two men. Liza Weil (How to Get Away with Murder, Gilmore Girls) leaves a major mark as Randy’s sweet former teacher, Miss Beard, sporting a fashionable pink eyepatch. 

The Passenger takes a unique approach here. While Randy is the story’s central focus, Gallner’s performance as Benson has so much bubbling just beneath the surface. Benson notices Randy’s smarts, but views him as pathetic—in his words, Benson sees something in Randy that’s “fixable.” Stops at diners, malls, schools, and homes ripple with energy thanks to the chemistry between Gallner and Berchtold. 21-year-old virgin Randy looks out of place when later clothed in a long overcoat, baggy clothes, and a Motörhead shirt; in a grungy mustard-colored fur coat, Benson tends to steal the show, constantly conversational and aggressive. An unlikely sort of camaraderie forms between the duo, in spite of the constant presence of a loaded gun.

The Passenger is only the latest in Carter Smith’s filmography, punctuated by exciting films like The Ruins, Swallowed, and Jamie Marks is Dead. Smith continues to carve out a deeper niche, in good company with filmmakers like Gregg Araki. The Passenger provides an excellent vehicle for Berchtold and Gallner to spread their dramatic wings. At the same time, it contains chilling messages about the longterm effects of buried physical and emotional trauma. Perhaps the only way to overcome our traumas is to acknowledge that they have actually happened. Change does not happen overnight, but repressing feelings rather than embracing them takes us down a path of self-destruction difficult to overcome.

Come ride along with The Passenger when it parks on Digital and On Demand on August 4th, followed by an MGM+ release later this year.

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