How do you get on board with a movie when the protagonist has almost no redeeming qualities? It’s hard to get invested in a story when you don’t really care about what happens to the main character. I don’t mean a situation where you don’t like them, that can be just effective as making sympathetic character. I mean what happens when you just don’t care about that person? Do they reach their goals? Do they live or die? Do they grow or develop as a character along the way? In the case of The Passenger, director Michelangelo Antonioni seemingly ignores all that gets you on board by giving a master class in the technical side film making.
I think that’s what bugged me most about Nicholson’s character, we never saw any real motivation for going to such extreme measures. Anywho, he does and the movie rolls on. In Robertson’s belongings, Locke finds an appointment book and decides to go method with his performance and actually show up to the meetings scheduled in the book. It turns out the real Robertson was involved in some pretty shady shit and Nicholson’s Locke is dragged into it too.
Along the way, his wife becomes suspicious that maybe Locke isn’t quite so dead and heads off to follow him on his European sightseeing sojourn. On which he has met a saucy young university student played by the saucy young Maria Schneider. The basis of their quickly flowering relationship is given about as much attention as the basis of Locke deciding to throw is whole life away in the first place.
But here’s the good bit, none of that matters. The Passenger is the kind of movie you could watch with the sound down and still be blown away. From Africa, to England, to Spain, the locations all look absolutely gorgeous. And Antonioni’s camera captures it all perfectly. Always in motion, the camera is more active in telling the story than any other movie I can think of. And if you do turn the volume up, you get a really solid Nicholson performance that‘s worth watching, even if his character barely is.
Antonioni definitely saves the best for last. The final scene, a seven minute single take that starts in a hotel room until the camera somehow moves through a grated window, into a courtyard and around the cavalcade of characters who have all descended on the climax. I haven’t said many good things about the story, but it really does pay off when you get this amazing ending. Too bad most of The Passenger’s amazingness comes from the technical film making skill on display, not from any empathy for the characters.