Producers: Paige Pemberton and Paul B. Uddo   Director: Carter Smith   Screenplay: Jack Stanley   Cast: Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold, Liza Weil, Billy Slaughter, Matthew Laureano, Jordan Sherley, Kanesha Washington, Lupe Leon, Merah Benoit, Glendon Ray Hobgood, Brooks Anne Hayes, Carson Allen Minniear, Sue Rock, Morgana Shaw and Angie Dillard   Distributor: MGM+

Grade: C+

Solid lead performances only go so far in this oddball combination of bloody thriller and forced therapy session, which begins with a massacre and ends in recovery from trauma.  “The Passenger” doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, but Kyle Gallner and Johnny Berchtold make its odd couple pairing compelling even as illogical narrative underpinnings and lethargic pacing take their toll.

Benson (Gallner) and Bradley (Berchtold) are co-workers in a crummy burger joint in a grimy industrial city.  Bradley, troubled by nightmares in which, as a child (Cameron Allen Minniear), he sees a woman (Liza Weil) with blood streaming from her eye, is so meek that when his boss Hardy (played, appropriately in view of his fate, by Billy Slaughter) was making out his employees’ first-name id plates, he was too nervous to tell him that Bradley was his surname. 

Bradley—or Randy—is constantly bullied by another colleague, brutish Chris (Matthew Laureano), who’s interested only in necking with slutty waitress Jess (Jordan Sherley), and accepts the nasty treatment without complaint.  Finally Benson, fed up with it all, goes to his car, comes back with a shotgun, and kills Hardy, Chris and Jess, forcing Bradley to help him carry the corpses into the rear and clean up the blood before locking up and driving away with hapless Bradley as his unwilling passenger.  (Fortunately, not a single customer has made an appearance.)  He calculates that they have seven hours before the victims are discovered, and says he intends using them to “fix” Bradley by curing him of his crippling anxiety.

What follows is a peculiarly meandering journey around town—a stop at Benson’s home, where he fights with his addict mother (Sue Rock), and another at a diner for breakfast, where he insults pleasant waitress Marsha (Kanesha Washington) by suggesting that she’s wasted her life.  They also go to a mall where Bradley’s one-time girlfriend Lisa (Lupe Leon, who abruptly dumped him, works at a kids’ store; Benson wants Bradley finally to come to terms with the breakup. 

Bradley, who goes through all this with distress but also growing sense of companionship with Benson, finally confesses the source of the debilitating docility that makes him submit cravenly to everyone else’s orders—guilt over accidentally causing a terrible injury to the eye of his second-grade teacher Miss Beard (Weil).  Benson decides that he should see her and apologize before they leave town, so they go to his old school to get her home address from the secretary (Brooks Anne Hayes).

She provides it, but as they leave Benson encounters Principal Sheppard (Glendon Ray Hobgood), whom he recognizes as an old teacher of his.  He snaps, follows the man into the parking lot and brutally assaults him before they proceed to Miss Beard’s home; obviously Bradley is not the only one to have suffered a traumatic experience in elementary school, though whatever happened to Benson is never fully explained.  The greeting he receives from his old teacher, still wearing the eyepatch that her students derided, proves far warmer than Bradley had expected, but a phone call from school leads Benson to take Miss Beard along with them to the very same diner they’d visited before—where Marsha accosts him angrily and both men are cured of their psychological problems, though in very different ways.

“The Passenger” has episodes of extreme violence—the opening massacre, the attack on Sheppard—but what it depends on is more the idea that Benson is a walking time bomb, with the potential to explode anytime, whether it be in encounters with Lisa, Marsha or Miss Beard or with somebody else they might bump into during the day, like Principal Sheppard.  Gallner expertly captures his on-the-edge volatility, managing to generate considerable suspense even when an explosion doesn’t happen.  Berchtold is equally effective in his own way, expressing Bradley’s inclination to fade into the background in dealings with others without turning him into a mere sap.  The two play off well against one another, even if it’s hard to buy into Benson’s decision to act as Bradley’s savior.  The rest of the cast is fine, with Weil, Leon and Washington the standouts, though it’s hard for anyone to take center stage while Gallner and Berchtold are in the vicinity.

Director Carter Smith is wise to give his stars a wide berth, but at the same time his pacing, combined with Eric Nagy’s editing, can seem to dawdle.  Spencer Davison’s production design is mostly just functional, but the burger joint is rendered in all its run-down junkiness, nicely caught in Lyn Moncrief’s deliberately dingy widescreen images.  Christopher Bear’s score is agreeably spare and, when it does appear, low-key.

“The Passenger” verges on the ridiculous, but though it never crosses the line into the genuinely absurd, it comes perilously close.  But the pairing of Gallner and Berchtold as its odd-couple protagonists makes even its most ludicrous elements more palatable than you might expect.