To stave off falling asleep at the wheel in 1986’s The Hitcher, C. Thomas Howell’s character picks up a hitchhiker. It proved to be the biggest mistake of his life, as that hitchhiker -Rutger Hauer in an iconic villainous role- ruthlessly stalked, tormented, and toyed with him for the rest of the film. What would his sadistic character look like in the present, with a glut of impressive tech at his disposal? That’s how Quibi’s The Stranger kicks off the first three episodes, making this psychological thriller the streaming service’s most promising offering yet.
Maika Monroe (It Follows, The Guest) stars as Clare, a recent transplant from Kansas to Los Angeles. An aspiring writer, she’s barely settled in and unfamiliar with the lay of the land, including the city’s severe traffic. It gives her job as a rideshare driver an extra layer of difficulty, which comes into play when she picks up her latest passenger, Carl (Dane DeHaan, A Cure for Wellness), from a sprawling Hollywood Hills estate. Carl insists on sitting in the front seat and wastes no time at all making Clare uncomfortable. When he pulls out a knife and confesses to murder, it sets off a cat and mouse chase from which Clare may not escape alive.
Created, written, and directed by Veena Sud, The Stranger nails its introduction to both the characters and the tech-reliant world, all while getting straight to the thrills. Establishing Clare as a cinephile-turned-aspiring writer from Kansas draws easy parallels to Dorothy’s fish-out-of-water journey in The Wizard of Oz, and quick references and dialogue to the film flesh out her character. Including the naivete. It might have worked for Dorothy in a fantasy setting but proves to be a handicap for Clare in a thriller setting. As for DeHaan, his character demonstrates serious tech-savvy before we even set eyes on him. There’s no question the actor knows how to do creepy well.
Like The Hitcher, Clare’s first brush with her twisted passenger results in her leaving him in the dust. Also like The Hitcher, Carl deftly isolates his prey from any that could potentially aid her. Well, save for a gas station clerk, played by Zombieland: Double Tap’s Avan Jogia, a plucky ally, much like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the 1986 film. His introduction sets up the idea that the only way to combat tech is with tech, one that’ll likely come into more extended play throughout the twelve episodes. While the initial episodes share many similarities to the ’86 classic, it remains to be seen whether it’ll diverge enough to forge its own path.
Of all Quibi’s genre offerings thus far, Sud leans into the short format in a way where others struggle. She relies on details and her actors to flesh out their characters while focusing on creating an unnerving atmosphere and thrills to keep viewers hooked. It’s a streamlined narrative set throughout one harrowing night for poor Clare, and so far, it seems as though Sud intends to turn the time constraints into an asset. Even if the remaining episodes retain their familiarity with The Hitcher, the style and effective creepiness deliver plenty of worthwhile thrills.