Joy Ride
review by KJ Doughton, 5 October 2001

Joy Ride, the road thriller directed by film noir master John Dahl, will certainly have you gripping your armrest a time or two.  However, when viewers step off of this suspenseful yet formulaic roller coaster, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be quickly diverted by thoughts of unpaid bills, shopping lists, and other domestic obligations.  It’s not what you would call a “resonant” film. 

Unlike previous Dahl outings such as The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, both of which shot their characters into a pinball machine of unpredictable twists and turns, Joy Ride has a more basic design.  Boy drives across the country to pick up his girlfriend. His troublesome brother comes along for the rise. A malevolent trucker behind the wheel of a sleek, eighteen-wheeler stalks them down the highways of America. If this script blueprint sound familiar, that’s because Steven Spielberg filmed it for Duel, a 1971 made-for-television nail-biter starring Dennis Weaver.  More recently, the road rage concept resurfaced in Jonathan Mostow's 1997 kidnapping thriller, BreakdownJoy Ride is the latest example of Hollywood’s fascination with terror on the interstate, and it’s tense enough to make you reconsider that upcoming cross-country trip you were planning for the fall. 

Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) is a handsome, fresh-faced college student (think of a younger, sandy-haired Rob Lowe) attending classes at a California university.  He gets a call from Venna (Leelee Sobieski), a lifelong friend burning the midnight oil in a Colorado school.  Even though she is poised, shapely, and outgoing, Lewis has always perceived of Venna as a “good friend.” Heaven forbid that romance would spoil such a camaraderie, but love is what Lewis feels stirring inside when Venna announces that she has broken up with her long-time boyfriend.  Lewis suggests that he trek to Boulder, pick her up, and take her back east to their hometown for the holidays.  She accepts.

A few complications arise, however.  Starving student Lewis has no wheels, so it’s down to the corner used car lot to score a 1971 Chrysler Newport.  Meanwhile, he fits Salt Lake City into his agenda after the news that older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) is in jail there.  It’s clear that Fuller, who hasn’t made contact with his sibling in five years, is an impulsive troublemaker.  Combined with Lewis’ more tentative nature, their chemistry is about as amiable as oil and water.  The duo stop in Montana for some minor car repairs, and Fuller has a weathered, old citizen’s band radio added to the Chrysler.  Soon, the two are eavesdropping on conversing truckers who sling such lingo as, “There’s a Kojack with a Kodak,” and “You’re coming up on a 200-mile slip ‘n slide.”  In this age of PCs and web surfing, it’s somewhat startling to remember that CB radios are still a popular communication tool. When Fuller refers to the device as “a type of prehistoric Internet,” we can relate.

The heart of the film develops when a raspy voice emanates from their radio, identifying itself as a trucker with the handle Rusty Nail.  Egged on by the insistent Fuller, Lewis impersonates a female traveler that they dub Candy Cane.  So convincing are Lewis’ ladylike raps that he soon has Rusty Nail lusting after him during a suggestive rapport.  Later, after they’ve staked out a Wyoming hotel room and had a run-in with an obnoxious patron residing next door, the brothers hatch a cruel prank.  Lewis will summon Rusty Nail to the room next to them: instead of an insatiable damsel, the trucker will contend will the scumbag holed up there.  It’s a humiliation that even Ben Stiller couldn’t endure.

The scheme works.  The boys fire up their radio from the motel parking lot, and inform Rusty Nail to “bring some pink champagne.”  However, things turn ugly when police show up at their door the next morning and announce that the mangled, jawless body of their temporary neighbor has been pulled off the freeway.  Apparently, Rusty Nail doesn’t have much sense of humor. Worse yet, he’s become aware of the boys’ identities, and plans to even the score with some gruesome payback.

The remainder of Joy Ride is an adrenaline rush of effective, if unlikely, action set pieces.  Especially strong is a scene involving a red herring that shatters all expectations: it builds up unbearable tension, then reveals itself as a false alarm. We chuckle in relief and wipe our brow.  Then, hell suddenly breaks loose all over again with no warning.  Dahl toys with us like a cruel predator, flashing signs of calm our way before kicking them out of reach.  By the time Venna unwittingly joins the ride, Rusty Nail has turned into a truck-inhabiting terminator who kidnaps her for use as bait for a vicious prank of his own.  “If you go to the police,” this faceless driver warns the brothers, “I will take her apart, piece by piece.”

Dahl employs Hitchcockian moments of expert suspense, such as a cat-and-mouse chase through a cornfield, and a motel showdown involving a rigged door, a shotgun, and a parade of cops in hot pursuit.  It’s some of the craftiest nastiness since Brian DePalma in his prime. Meanwhile, there’s a worn, rural tone to Joy Ride equal parts rain-spattered windshields, the red and blue neon of a roadside motel’s “vacancy” sign, and the vast, flat wastelands of a desert freeway.  Envision Blood Simple by the Coen Brothers, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of how things look in Dahl-land.

Even so, there’s something very cardboard about the feel of Joy Ride.  Dahl’s direction is so smart, it’s hard to suspend disbelief as the vengeful trucker becomes increasingly all knowing and indestructible.  He seems to know names, relationships, and locations without any explanation.  By the time his violent spree is over, he has emerged as Freddie Krueger speeding around in a Peterbilt. Let’s hope that Dahl abandons such paint-by-number genre pieces in the future, and graduates to a more complex script that lives up to his wicked talent.

Directed by:
John Dahl

Steve Zahn
Paul Walker
Leelee Sobieski

Written by:
Clay Tarver
Jeffrey Abrams

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian..




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