On paper, “The Passenger” sounds like a thriller. But it’s an introspective examination of the self, an existential road trip movie with a spy element and a hint of danger. This is the way Michelangelo Antonioni does cloak and dagger espionage.
Jack Nicholson stars in the film and gives a stirring performance released the same year as his first Oscar-winning work as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Nicholson plays David Locke, a journalist in Africa so fed up with his assignment that he throws up his hands and declares he doesn’t care anymore. His car gets stuck in the sand, he’s literally spinning his wheels, and as he agonizes in defeat, Antonioni’s camera pans to reveal the enormity of the desert.
Back in his hotel, he finds his one English speaking companion, David Robertson, dead in his room. Jack reacts to it with the same irritated scowl as not having soap for the shower. Locke convinces the hotel clerks that he’s the one who’s dead, while he assumes the identity of Robertson, leaving his wife and his job behind. The only challenge is that Robertson is an illegal arms dealer in Africa.
At one point Locke’s new getaway companion (Maria Schneider in an unnamed role) asks him what he’ll do with his life. He throws out a couple of ideas, and she calls them too boring and too romantic. When he says he’ll be a gun runner, she says, “too implausible,” even though Locke has by now learned that’s exactly what he’s become. At least they have a sense of humor about it.
Antonioni’s stoic approach to drama has grown unfashionable. In the ’60s you either idolized him or Fellini when it came to championing Italian auteurs, and while there are still acolytes and filmmakers who owe a great debt to Antonioni’s empty landscapes and moody tone poems, Fellini’s more garish affinity with style and movement has won out in modern cinema. Antonioni is too cool for his own good.
Maybe that’s why Nicholson’s raised eyebrow and detached cool makes “The Passenger” feel so vital. Twice he asks Schneider, “What the fuck are you doing here with me,” but from him it’s a sign of affection. She has no reason to tag along with him and his directionless new life, but she’s remained drawn to him. Better yet, he knows his wife is hot on his tail, and there’s no fully escaping the life he left behind. Schneider is a reminder of a life he could have.
Antonioni finds poignance in modest shots of natural beauty. Locke takes a gondola ride and leans out the side, his body soaring over the blank slate of the deep blue ocean. When he and Schneider have lost their tail in Barcelona, she asks what he’s running from. “Turn your back toward the seat.” The camera perches on the rear bumper of the car with Schneider floating in front of the rushing trees overhead. He’s running away from whatever’s behind him, and together they’ve never felt more weightless and free.