Feature debuts don't come much better than director Robert Harmon and screenwriter Eric Red's sleek, dream-like thriller about a naïve college boy who crosses paths with devil in the flesh after taking a wrong turn on some lost highway. Chicago-based Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) signs up for a drive-away job that involves delivering a flashy Cadillac to its new owner in California. He should be listening when his mother warns against picking up hitchhikers, but where's the thrill in hitting the road with your mom's voice in your head? So Halsey, a little lonely and a lot shook up after a sleep-deprived near-accident with a semi , stops to pick up a hitcher standing in the Texas rain. Though his new passenger, John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), proves to be the semi-mythic smiler with a knife high-strung travelers pray they never meet, Halsey actually wins the first round of Ryder's sadistic cat-and-mouse game. The day after Halsey shoves Ryder out of his moving car and speeds off in triumph, he spots a station wagon on the road ahead. The adorable nuclear family inside includes pretty mom, stolid dad, unbearably cute kids… and Ryder. Halsey's efforts to warn them come to naught and almost get him killed; by the time he catches up again, their car's a crime scene and Ryder has begun the next phase of his wicked game: framing Halsey for one brutal highway killing after another. With the state police on his tail, Halsey befriends Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a roadside waitress whose restlessness equals his own. But their tentative romance can't hold a candle to the vicious bond between Halsey and the enigmatically malevolent Ryder, the embodiment of every ill wind that ever whipped across an isolated stretch of road; whatever brought them together, only death seperate them. THE HITCHER is part of a long tradition of road movies in which urban travelers discover that the open road's promise goes hand in hand with its shadowy dangers, and stands alongside such stellar examples as Edgar Ulmer's DETOUR (1945), Stephen Spielberg's DUEL (1971) and Jonathan Mostow's BREAKDOWN (1997). It's a film in which everything comes together: Red's pulpy dialogue and canny use of urban legends, campfire tales and mythic archetypes; John Seale's rich, densely textured cinematography; Mark Isham's spare score; Harmon's sharp sense of rhythm and keen eye for the ominous beauty of the Southwestern landscape, and a trio of remarkably subtle performances. Often tagged a b-movie ham, Hauer's best performances — of which Ryder is one — have an icy lucidity few actors can match. Howell, who built his reputation on playing sensitive, damaged adolescents, gives Halsey a convincing combination of vulnerability and hidden strength, while Leigh makes a real character out of a genre stereotype — the small-town girl who pays for her big dreams.