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The Passenger

Usually, when a road movie sticks you with two characters, you’re supposed to like at least one of them. Carter Smith's “The Passenger” bravely denies this comfort as part of its queasy, then curious, then underwhelming embrace of extremes. One character is Randy (Johnny Berchtold), a legendary pushover and fast food employee who would rather swallow bites of a force-fed, day-old cheeseburger than stand up to a bully co-worker. The other man is Randy's silent co-worker Benson (Kyle Gallner), who then shoots up the Bayou burger spot, killing all his co-workers except Randy. After making him hide the bodies in the freezer, Benson lets Randy live but forces him to come along. 

Benson and Randy are incredibly striking contrasts as these nightmarish characters, intriguing conceits of this Blumhouse project not sticking to the rules in part because it's going straight to the modern grindhouses of streaming anyway. Much of the movie relies on their odd pairing after such an abhorrent opening scene and in place of any greater tension. It's not about waiting for justice or that gibberish about "being a man." The control that Benson has over Randy as they drive around is not asserted by a smart plan but rather the dominating sense of power Randy has seceded. Benson doesn’t really have to consider whether he’s setting himself up by being near a phone or an open field. He knows to his core that Randy won’t challenge him, won't call for help. And he doesn’t. 

The script by Jack Stanley toys with this dynamic for a long while, eventually running out of ways to vocalize its initial boldness. But it has a do-or-die commitment to this knowingly frustrating character dynamic, a deconstruction of an adult who is as spineless as one can believe, another provocation from this tale meant to mirror a more relatable, psychological reality. Randy eventually trickles out to Benson about why he is, to put it politely, such a decision-averse wuss. Blinded by his frustrations from such passivity, Benson decides he will help Randy face the people he fears—the girlfriend who dumped him after her cat died, and the teacher he accidentally half-blinded in second grade. 

The main spectacle from these scenes comes from its two performances of physical opposites: Berchtold hardly squirms as his captor pushes him along and gives a believable voice to his frailty beyond tears that are at the ready. Meanwhile, Benson is always buzzing with adrenaline, anger, and god knows what else, from Gallner’s fingers and in a few carefully placed and thankfully brief monologues. It should be noted that "The Passenger" does not turn Randy into the Magical Mass Shooter. 

“The Passenger” lacks a greater plan, but such a journey is compelling more thanks to its various inspired pieces. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief has numerous striking compositions that readily use negative space and the movie’s growingly cryptic color palette, and such shots are given a bite by Eric Nagy’s editing, who uses them like individual statements from the film’s lurking notions of fear, control, and trauma. Smith’s direction, in general, maintains an air of being off-kilter, like with the fluffy sweater Benson dons midway through or the blast of neon purple that fills a climactic diner scene. 

Even if this movie doesn’t achieve a great epiphany at the end of the darkest route, it offers a great showcase for Gallner in particular. He has the playful intensity of Jack Nicholson without ever aping the legend's grin. Nor does Gallner overplay the imposing presence Benson readily assumes, especially as the story has Benson leaning over Randy’s shoulder as he meets with these two people from his past who have made him fearful. Gallner has such an ease in the role; he can do so much else, as we’ve seen from his previous films, but he’s a natural with the unnatural. “The Passenger” projects a future for Gallner of roles that may not win Oscars, but they’ll be far more exciting and daring than that. 

Now playing on digital platforms and available on demand.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

The Passenger movie poster

The Passenger (2023)

Rated NR

94 minutes


Johnny Berchtold as Randolph Bradley

Kyle Gallner as Benson

Liza Weil as Miss Beard






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