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A journalist researching a documentary in the Sahara Desert meets a gunrunner who dies suddenly. When the journalist notices that they have a similar appearance, he assumes the recently deceased's identity and accepts the consequences that it brings. Written by
We join David Locke (Jack Nicholson) at a particularly low point in his life. He is alone in the wilderness, lost and frustrated. Unhappy with his life, he discovers the corpse of a fellow hotel guest and promptly decides to take on the guy's identity.
"I'd like to enquire about flights," Locke asks a hotel clerk. He seeks to escape his past. Later in the film, as he rides a cable cart, Locke spreads his arms and soars like a bird. He's flying, finally enjoying a brief moment of freedom.
The theme of identity, and Locke's name itself, immediately recalls the writings of English philosopher John Locke. Locke believed in the concept of the "tabula rasa" or blank slate. He believed that it was our experiences that defined us as people and that the only way to escape who we are is to effectively erase our history and cut ourselves off from experiences.
Throughout his writings, Locke emphasised the individual's freedom to author his or her own soul. Each individual was free to define his character, but his basic identity as a member of the human species could not be altered. So Locke had two ideas at war. Firstly the belief that the individual was free to author his own life, and secondly the belief that human nature is rigid and unchangeable. It is from this presumption of a free, self authored mind, combined with a sense of rigid human nature, that the Lockean doctrine of "natural" rights is derived.
In Antonioni's film, Nicholson articulates these ideas himself. He is trapped between wanting to be free and having to fulfil duties/roles/tasks embedded in the new persona he has acquired. While responding to a comment that all PLACES are the same, he even argues that it's actually the PEOPLE that are the same. That everyone conforms to specific cultural archetypes. The film's original title, "Profession: Reporter", highlights this point best.
Nicholson's character is desperate to escape this. Like his character in "Five Easy Pieces", he wants some unmappable freedom. He wants to be an individual. Beyond this, though, he wants to stay blank. In what is perhaps the film's most joyous moment, a female character asks Locke what he's running from. He tells her to turn her back to the front of the car. What occurs next is an instant of spontaneous elation and giddy happiness, as she watches the road rush away behind them.
But what people fail to notice during this scene, is that she is in fact watching the past. By facing her previous experiences (which Locke refuses to do) she is happy. Happiness comes from her memories and past encounters, while Locke is miserable simply because he refuses to acknowledge his past experiences.
Throughout the film Locke is asked whether he thinks "the landscape" is beautiful. Once he answers "no", another time he absent mindedly answers "yes", but Antonioni stresses that Locke is really not paying attention. Locke intentionally avoids absorbing beauty or new experiences in an effort to remain in a constant state of rebirth.
These themes are culminated in a brilliant "blind man" story towards the end of the film. Locke, a journalist who specialises in seeing and recording the truth, is painfully attuned to what he calls the "dirt" of the world. As such, he chooses to remain blind. A blank slate.
Antonioni is particularly good at endings and the final shot of "The Passenger" really elevates the whole film. Like the dead man, whose identity he took on, Locke dies alone and face down in a bed. His ex wife pops up and states that she never knew him, but nobody seems to care.
9/10- A great film, worth two viewings. It captures a profound sense of isolation and sadness. Antonioni's camera seems to capture the immense tiredness of the body. Rather than portray experiences, he shows what remains of past experiences. He shows what comes afterwards, when everything has been said. The middle portion of the film is slow and seems to be lacking some sort of superficial drama, but things build nicely and the final payoff well is worth the wait.
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