If the passenger became a driver, could he or she handle all the metaphorical responsibilities that go with it? That question is central to Michelangelo Antonioni's re-released The Passenger (1975) and the answer provides a sobering glimpse into the souls of the contenders who foolishly wish for that second chance, that empty stretch of road, and don't have any idea where to start.
The man who gets a second chance here is David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a prominent journalist filming a documentary on civil war in Africa, a tough assignment further plagued by brutal weather and a lack of amenities. At his hotel, Locke meets a businessman named Richardson, a world traveler with no responsibilities and obligations aside from his next meeting.
When Locke finds Richardson dead in his bedroom, Locke's world expands. With a doctored passport and the duping of the hotel staff, Locke becomes Richardson. And everyone buys the wrong man's death, including Locke's friends, colleagues, and family. Using Richardson's planner and documents, Locke finds himself employed as a successful gunrunner, who just happens to be supplying arms to the very rebel forces he was filming days ago. As for the wad of cash he's given, it is further justification of choosing his new path. "Jesus Christ," Locke drawls when he peers at the envelope.
Locke may have decided to embark on Kerouac-like adventure (complete with a snazzy rented convertible and a wayward Maria Schneider) but others aren't ready to let things go, especially his unfaithful wife and producer, both of whom want to ask Richardson some questions. Locke is not really free. He has loved ones who want answers and being a gunrunner, despite its perks, is still a job. Antonioni's pace is lazy, so what starts off being an easygoing journey for Locke soon turns into a race against time. How much longer can this vacation from the self last?
Antonioni's meditative style allows us to gradually view Locke as the last person who should be on such an adventure. As a journalist, he's a born observer, someone comfortable behind a notebook or a camera. And that's really what this identity switch is for Locke, a chance for him to be left alone, to live his life on his own indifferent terms. For that to happen, you need to be a born loner, someone without a past or a future. Locke has too many personal obligations, plus his very livelihood is based on following the lives of others. The concept of on my own is a foreign one. When he asks an elderly, grizzled Spanish stranger to talk about his life, Locke might as well being asking the guy, "What the hell should I do?"
Nicholson might seem an odd choice to play the unsure Locke, since in 1975 he was in the middle of playing counterculture, go-your-own icons like R.P. McMurphy and Robert Dupea. But Nicholson tames the wild eyes, the air of mischief. The same way he used the lure of freedom to become an acting legend, he uses it in The Passenger to become closed off. Nicholson plays Locke as a man who increasingly looks at his freedom as one more of life's inconveniences. He's more angry and getting stuck in the sand than from having his past catch up to him. It's a terrific performance and a refreshing one, since Nicholson has been portraying some variation of "Jack" for the last 25 years.
The Passenger proceeds at a leisurely pace that occasionally reaches into boredom. If you're willing to wait and give it a little bit of effort, Antonioni offers a life lesson and another possible slogan for the VW people: In the road of life, you can't make a passenger into a driver. Not without there being severe consequences.
Aka Professione: reporter.
You can't handle the cheese tray.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 9th April 1975
Box Office USA: $0.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $10 thousand
Budget: $5 thousand
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Mystery Forest
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 59 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Starring: Arne Røyseng as Man, Ida Marie Bjordal as Girl, Liv Nyborg as Mother