The Passenger: Jack Nicholson at his best in nihilistic body swap

Review: Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film was hailed as a return to form for the auteur

Jack Nicholson in 'The Passenger'

Film Title: The Passenger

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Steven Berkoff, Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 126 min

Fri, Feb 22, 2019, 05:00


The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are nearly as canonical as they once were. Maybe it’s the unhurried medium-long shots, or maybe the Italian master’s preoccupation with alienation isn’t as voguish as it was in the early 1970s. Even the once-unassailable L’Avventura, a film that made it on to Sight & Sound’s list of the critics’ top 10 greatest films three times in a row, has a waning reputation. Compared to that film, in which bourgeois Romans are bored, The Passenger is rather more eventful, if unlikely to be mistaken for Sorry to Bother You.

Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a jaded reporter making a documentary about post-colonial Africa. Locke exchanges his identity with that of a man he finds dead in a hotel room. This attempt to remedy an existential crisis allows him to start a romantic relationship with a younger woman (Maria Schneider) but it does tie him to certain appointments made by the dead man, including a jaunt to Munich where he meets guerilla representatives. It transpires that his new identity is that of an arms dealer. To further complicate matters, his wife and friends are looking for him.

The Passenger features Nicholson’s most carefully calibrated performance of his 70s hot-streak

“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” asks his girlfriend. But of course it isn’t; he’s now housing two existential crises in one body.

Hailed as a return to form for the auteur after the silly psychedelic stylings of Zabriskie Point, The Passenger features Nicholson’s most carefully calibrated performance of his 70s hot-streak (not bad when you size up the competition: Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The film is equally notable for Luciano Tovoli’s extraordinary cinematography. A network of gyroscopes was assembled for bravado tracking shots: Steadicam wasn’t available until 1976, a year after Antonioni’s psycho-drama premiered. Body swaps don’t get more nihilistic than this.

The Passenger is at QFT Belfast and Triskel Christchurch Cork from February 22nd