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Gleefully vile The Passenger is a horrifying road trip into madness

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Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures
Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures

Now in Theaters
VOD and DVD June 28

Blasco (Ramiro Blas) uses his beloved van to drive for a popular ride-service app. His latest job involves carrying three female passengers, Mariela (Cecilia Suárez), Lidia (Cristina Alcázar), and Lidia's daughter Marta (Paula Gallego), across Spain to an isolated locale. During the trip, Blasco's van strikes a woman stumbling down the road. When they stop to help, things take a disastrous turn. The foursome have inadvertently encountered an otherworldly threat that will make the remainder of their journey a chaotic fight for survival.

The gleefully anarchic and exuberantly pitch-black The Passenger is a dangerously nasty horror comedy that got under my skin. It's a vicious little exercise in minimalistic suspense that shifts tone at the drop of the hat, building to a gorily terrific conclusion that, while not entirely unexpected, is delivered with such playfully brutal intensity that it's difficult not to be impressed.

There's a reason this was one of my favorite discoveries during this past April's Seattle International Film Festival. Directors Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez have a great deal of fun toying with their audience, while Luis Sánchez-Polack's tightly wound script is an efficient Rube Goldberg machine made up of seemingly disparate parts that, when assembled, build into something distinctly, insidiously marvelous.

Not that every viewer will have the same reaction I did. Maybe during the last third, that's possible, but they'll have to get to that point, and in some instances that will prove difficult. Blasco is not an easy character to be around. He's sexist. He's a misogynist. He's even a bit racist. Blasco appears to have zero control over the words that come out of his mouth, frequently making comments or telling stories that put his three passengers ill at ease.

But there is method to this madness. Sánchez-Polack's screenplay is an aggressive satire, a comedy of social anxieties, generational worries, and pent-up aggressions that is as perceptive as it is uncomfortable. Blasco is not a hero, and yet he is the focal point for the majority of the narrative. Most shockingly, he is also the one audiences are expected to root for as events increasingly cascade out of control and spiral into gooey madness.

That we do so is a testament to the writing and to Cerezo and Gómez's dexterous handling of the material. That almost goes without saying. But it is also due to Blas's fearless performance. The veteran Spanish character actor isn't worrying about trying to make Blasco likable. He does not sand down the rough edges or provide any physical, nonverbal clues that he's a better person than the words coming out of his mouth indicate. Yet Blas makes him authentic, allowing the melancholia of his life to shine through, making his actions near the end worth cheering, even when the man himself remains something of a pitiable monster.

Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures  

The other mesmerizing bright spot is Gallego. Her performance snuck up on me. There is a quiet grace to her that is constantly intriguing. After the van's encounter with the new passenger, however, the young actor comes alive in a variety of peculiar ways. Her physical movements change, while her verbal cadences and facial ticks help cement the general unease that threatens to overwhelm all those in the van and send their trip down a dangerous side road leading straight to damnation. Gallego is outstanding, and I hope to see much more of her in the future.

For a motion picture that is almost entirely self-contained inside a single, if admittedly mobile, location, The Passenger still features a deliciously disquieting visual aesthetic. Cinematographer Ignacio Aguilar and the entire production team have done an exceptional job crafting a look and feel that allows the world outside of the van to take on a life of its own. While not altogether flashy, there is still always something happening in the frame that catches the eye, and when the gruesome makeup effects begin to take center stage, Aguilar refuses to drown the screen in goo, maintaining a naturalistic lighting scheme that considerably augments the growing terror.

The Passenger will not be for everyone. The mixture of hardcore comedy, dark social commentary, and full-throttle horror doesn't seamlessly mesh. But Cerezo and Gómez know what they're doing, and for those who do like their genre fare challenging, or want their scares to be combined with something intellectually substantive, this vile gem gets the job done. The film reaches its final destination with nary a second to spare, the screeching tires of its finale a deafening claxon sending out a warning to keep the roads clear, and that dangerous objects in the rearview mirror are much closer to ripping out the driver's jugular than they appear to be.