The Passenger: Alienation Masquerading as Thriller
Aniruddha Basu reviews Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film Professione: reporter or The Passenger
In his best works, Michaelangelo Antonioni has obsessively dealt with the notion of a mystery without an outcome. L’Avventura (The adventure) and Blow-Up both have a puzzle at its heart, that superficially make them seem like thrillers. But Antonioni has as much interest in thrillers, as he has in say making a Die-Hard style action movie. The Passenger, made in 1975, is no different. Billed as a suspense thriller, it turns out to be an existential examination of a man trying to run away from himself.
Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a world-weary TV reporter (aren’t they all?) who goes to Africa to make a documentary on Guerrillas raging a secret war. But from the very onset there is something aloof about Locke, a sense that he is only going through the motions, his actions devoid of any real sense of urgency or meaning.
After a particularly fruitless day out at work, Locke returns to his hotel room and discovers that his co-passenger David Robertson, who was staying in the same hotel, has died of a heart attack. The two men look kind of similar and without even planning it, almost as if on impulse, Locke assumes the identity of the dead man, thereby faking his own death.
Why does he do it? The movie never makes clear. Locke was a successful and high profile journalist, a kind of star reporter and so naturally his untimely “death” comes as a shock not only to his estranged wife, but also to his producer and old friend who embarks on a mission to find the original Robertson ( who is of course Locke himself).
But after exchanging identities with the dead man, Locke barely has time to enjoy his new life as he begins to globe-trot across continents in a bid to avoid and escape any member of his “Old” life. Gradually he also becomes entangled with the dead Robertson’s affairs and eventually learns that the deceased was a arms supplier for the very guerrillas Locke was trying to film. In the midst of all this, he also becomes involved with a beautiful young architecture student (referred in the film only as “the girl”), who becomes a sort of co-passenger in Locke’s travels.
If the plot that I have described sounds colourful and fast paced, then believe me it is not so. For Antonioni chooses to focus on the underlying void in Locke’s existence as he assumes his new identity and wanders irresolutely in empty streets in search of
And in many stunning scenes Locke’s insignificance is further highlighted by the stunning, enormous architecture, or the barren landscapes that he navigates. This is a man who is merely existing without a plan or purpose. His only driving force is to run away from his past which he finds humiliating and intolerable. This is ironical for in attempting to escape himself from his wife and producer, he embraces danger and almost certain death as he gets more and more involved with the deceased Robertson’s shady dealings.
This culminates in a complex, extended climactic sequence where Locke is ultimately killed. The camera takes a long pan outside the hotel room where Locke is murdered, and instead focuses on the girl who is seen talking to one of the thugs. Since it’s a long shot its not clear whether they know each other. Is she involved in Locke’s death? Did she actually know Robertson, and consequently the underground dealers? These possibilities are hinted at but never explained.
But Passenger is not about plot devices and contrivances. Like Blow Up it is about a man caught up in a lifestyle so passive that he would do anything to get away from it. And like L’Avventura the mystery/thriller element here is merely incidental. Perhaps ennui can be portrayed in more interesting ways that what Antonioni had resorted to in Zabriskie Point and here. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is the perfect example of how even an exploration of existential angst can be downright entertaining. Antonioni’s style, with the notable exception of his masterpiece BlowUp, is much more langorous and demanding. But like his earlier works L’Avventura and La Notte those willing to sit through it will be amply rewarded.