Roadgames belongs in the canon of great road horror-thrillers like Duel and The Hitcher. Here, archetypes and Americana give way to Aussie eccentricity, seen from a slightly cockeyed angle–while director Richard Franklin is Australian, stars Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis are Americans playing Americans. (The movie finds various little ways to emphasize that they’re out of place.) Keach is Pat Quid–a truck driver who wants to eschew the stereotypes attached to the job–and Curtis is Pamela Rushworth (“Hitch,” as Quid calls her), a hitchhiker trying to escape her prominent family.
Quid is a kind of idealized independent outsider. He drives his truck, insists on fair pay, and enjoys his own company; his adorable pet dingo, Boswell, rides shotgun. Quid plays games to pass the time, making deadpan jokes to himself and imagining the conversations happening in other cars. He has a keen eye and a good memory, and when the same faces and vehicles show up again and again–and when someone looks out a motel window to see that the morning trash is being picked up–he takes note of it. He soon has reason to believe that he’s on the tail of a roving serial killer who is uncomfortably and inconveniently aware he’s being watched. Hitchhiker Pamela, as offbeat as Quid, exuberantly joins in his quest.
Roadgames is both obviously like a handful of other genre movies and yet not very much like them at all. The inflections hit in different places. In particular, this doesn’t come down to man vs. man–or man vs. uncanny primal force disguised as a man–as much as it does a confusing, fraught, dangerous, and intermittently funny confrontation that’s man vs. man, mediated by crowd, and assisted by a woman and a dingo with a secret identity. While Quid is used to his long solo rides, this is anything but a one-man show. It’s a movie that gets all its texture from his rapport with everyone from Boswell to Hitch to Frita, a satisfied, matter-of-fact suburban wife who commandeers Quid’s truck for her own purposes. Any other movie would use Frita as just a joke, but Roadgames makes a real character out of her, giving her layers, emotions, and intelligence. She’s another part of the world, starring in some separate movie that only partly intersects with Quid’s. The context on the radio matters even when it’s not discussing the mysterious serial killer.
This is straddles the border not just between horror and thriller but between thriller and hangout film. When it’s not nail-bitingly tense, it’s colorful and beautifully laid-back–and then, when you least expect it, it uses some of that laid-backness against you and remembers that the flawed humanity of its characters is a weakness as well as a strength.
Roadgames is now streaming on the Criterion Channel, Roku, Tubi, Pluto TV, and Freevee, so you really have no excuse not to watch it.