DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Passenger

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Aaron Silverman, May 5, 2006.

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  1. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    The Passenger

    US Theatrical Release: April 9, 1975 (Full-length version: October 28, 2005) (Sony Pictures Classics/ MGM)
    US DVD Release: April 25, 2006
    Running Time: 2:05:47 (28 chapter stops)
    Rating: PG-13 (For Some Violence, Nudity and Language) (Note that the film includes graphic documentary footage of a real public execution – if that disturbs you, then you might want to stay away.)
    Video: 1.85:1 anamorphic (Extra Features: N/A)
    Audio: English DD2.0 Mono (Extra Features: N/A)
    Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Chinese (Extra Features None)
    TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
    Menus: Not animated.
    Packaging: Standard keepcase; insert features cover images from other Sony Pictures Classics titles on both sides.
    MSRP: $24.96

    THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3/5

    Ah, the European art films of our youth. A near-disdain for the conventions of plot and structure. Characters wandering in and out of extended static shots. The idle bourgeoisie searching for meaning and finding only emptiness. Welcome to Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, newly restored to its original length.

    As the film opens, a man (Jack Nicholson) is traveling through the African desert. The man, David Locke, is a British television journalist working on a documentary about a civil war in Chad. He, like Darth Vader a long, long time before him (or a couple of years later, depending on how you look at it), wants to find the secret rebel base. He goes through a series of guides, none of whom manage to get him where he wants to be. Eventually, he ends up back at his hotel, where he makes a shocking discovery.

    Lying dead in one of the rooms is another Brit – a man named Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill). Locke and Robertson had met earlier and shared a drink and some conversation. Robertson was a bit of a mysterious character, a globetrotting businessman who was less than forthcoming about his line of work. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, Locke makes a bizarre and fateful decision.

    Locke swaps clothes with the dead man, carefully exchanges the photos in their passports, and drags the body back to his own room. A visit to the front desk, and as far as the outside world is concerned, the famous reporter David Locke has died. It’s a strange thing to do, trading identities with a man he barely knows. What could be the reason for such an impetuous act?

    Although it’s not explained at first, hints are dropped throughout the film. It seems to boil down to a desire for activities with concrete meaning. Locke deals in intangibles – reporting about the experiences of others rather than living them himself. At the start of the film, he literally wanders through an empty desert. When we do see him conducting interviews, they take place in calm and nondescript settings, with subjects who never seem to have anything informative to say anyway. We also meet Locke’s cuckolding wife (Jenny Runacre), who is cold and critical, even with her lover.

    As it turns out, Robertson is an arms dealer – should be good for a few action sequences, right? In fact, the first appointment Locke finds in his new calendar is a meeting with representatives of the very rebels who have so far eluded him. Despite this promising start, however, he finds that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the street.

    Robertson’s seemingly exciting career doesn’t bring much excitement beyond that first meeting, which itself is quite low-key and doesn’t involve much more than a list of weapons being sold. Subsequent events in Robertson’s schedule don’t pan out, leaving Locke waiting for contacts who never show up and eventually starting to ponder his next career move.

    All is not dullsville for our hero, however. A former colleague, Knight (Ian Hendry), is after him, hoping to find out what really happened to Locke by questioning Robertson. As Knight closes in, Locke meets a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) in Barcelona who agrees to help him evade his pursuer. The girl, who sports a hairstyle that was subsequently banned by the United Nations Convention On All That Is Decent, drops whatever it was that she was doing and hits the road with Locke, encouraging him to milk his new identity for all it’s worth when he starts to lose interest.

    Both Locke and the girl are “passengers” of a sort, he in Robertson’s life and she in Locke’s adventure (and, literally, in his car). The film looks at questions of identity – can a man really trade lives with another? If so, then which of them really exists? The girl appears out of nowhere and doesn’t even get a name. She seems to suddenly define herself solely in terms of Locke’s quest for meaning. Soon, she becomes more interested in his new life than he is. (Some critics see signs that there may be more to this girl than it seems, but the signs are questionable and are not acknowledged by the writer in his commentary track – I am inclined to discount those theories.)

    The Passenger operates on a couple of levels – it follows a thriller-like plot while it explores ideas through situations, imagery and dialogue. However, it’s much more committed to the latter. The glacial pace of the film precludes it from actually working as a thriller. In fact, it may be less enjoyable on the first viewing, because the incessant waiting for something to happen can be distracting from the more interesting aspects of the film. As an art film, it fares better. There are an incredible number of interesting settings, with cinematography that reflects and enhances Locke’s feelings of detachment and solitude. The almost total lack of music on the soundtrack reinforces the empty and foreboding atmosphere. Antonioni’s well-honed directorial skills are put to good use here, most famously in a seven-minute trick tracking shot that climaxes the film. In fact, the film’s style perhaps overwhelms its substance at times

    Nicholson and Schneider give fine performances, with Locke and the girl sharing a few mildly philosophical discussions. However, their conversations never really go very deep. There are not many of them, and none of them lasts very long. Both characters seek an elusive meaning to life, with Locke ready to give up long before the girl is. In the end, all are fleeting – the girl has come and gone, as has Locke, as has Robertson. The final irony is that the ethereal Locke will live on in his work and be remembered by the people who know him (and perhaps the nameless girl will eventually find permanence in the structures she’ll design), while Robertson, a man of action, is entirely erased from existence.


    THE WAY I SEE IT: 3.5/5

    The image is pretty decent. There’s about as much detail as can be expected in the extremely grainy film stock. Colors tend to be washed out ever so slightly much of the time, which just adds to the existential fatalism of the film. The bulk of the picture is essentially free of digital artifacts and noise, although there are a few spots where there are some issues. They aren’t very prevalent.


    THE WAY I HEAR IT: 3.5/5

    The 2-channel mono soundtrack is very solid, if sparse. Dialogue is quite clear, and the occasional effects work well. There is almost no music in the film, and what is there is mainly a simple melody played on a very quiet solo flute.


    THE SWAG: 2/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

    Commentary With Jack Nicholson

    Nicholson’s commentary has its good and bad points. He tends to ramble, and there are a few too many extended silences, but he does have some interesting insights. Occasionally he falls into simple narration of the on-screen action.

    Commentary With Journalist Aurora Irvine and Writer/ Screenwriter Mark Peploe

    This is by far the superior of the two tracks. Peploe co-wrote the screenplay, and more importantly, the story on which the film is based. He has a lot to say, and when he explains things in the film, it’s coming straight from the horse’s mouth. (After listening to this commentary, you can have a high and mighty chuckle at some of the critical essays that misinterpret elements of this film.)

    Trailers
    • The Passenger (2:10) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic)

    SUMMING IT ALL UP

    The Way I Feel About It: 3/5
    The Way I See It: 3.5/5
    The Way I Hear It: 3.5/5
    The Swag: 2/5


    The Passenger is an interesting document of its time. While it ostensibly wears the clothes of a thriller, it eschews the elements that normally form the backbone of that genre to visually explore its themes at a very leisurely pace. Knowing up front to not expect much in the way of action and to simply pay attention to the imagery and attitudes will definitely enhance one’s enjoyment of the film. Still, it explores interesting ideas without ever becoming fascinating, and displays a fine aesthetic sensibility without reaching artistic brilliance. They don’t make many films quite like this anymore, and in a way perhaps filmmaking has moved on. Still, The Passenger is a thought-provoking experience presented here with solid A/V quality and enhanced by interesting commentary. Check it out if this sort of thing appeals to you.
     
  2. Mike.B

    Mike.B Stunt Coordinator

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    Very glad this is finally out on DVD. Thanks for the review Aaron!
     
  3. Marko Berg

    Marko Berg Supporting Actor

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    Thanks for the well-written and entertaining review. I'll be happy to add this film to my collection.
     
  4. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

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    Glad you guys enjoyed the review! Sorry about the delay.
     

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