About ten years ago, my dad had a CB radio in his truck, which I would
often turn on attempting to make contact with truck drivers nearby, or
just to eavesdrop on their sometimes oddball conversations with one another.
I never got myself into trouble with the CB, but the reality is that it
could realistically be turned into a tool, much like the Internet, used
to terrorize people with. That possibility of danger, intermixed with the
idea of being left helpless on a long, lonesome, flat stretch of highway,
is fearfully and expertly tapped into in "Joy Ride," a seemingly conventional
horror movie that surprises and creates palpably felt scares by not always
playing by the rules.
Having just completed his freshman year away at college, Lewis Thomas (Paul
Walker) has made a deal with longtime best friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski)
to pick her up in Colorado so that they can spend some time together while
traveling cross-country to their home back east. Buying a used car on a
spur-of-the-moment impulse, Lewis stops along the way to bail his troubled
older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), out of jail in Salt Lake City.
Reunited for the first time in five years, Lewis and Fuller make the mistake
of buying a CB radio at a truck stop, and proceed to jokingly impersonate
a woman they label "Candy Cane," who invites a gravelly-voiced trucker
named "Rusty Nail" for a motel rendezvous that night. Lewis and Fuller,
staying one door over from where "Candy Cane" is supposed to be, witness
the shadowy figure make his way to the room, followed by the sounds of
a muffled struggle. They are alarmed to find out the next morning by the
police that the man staying next door to them was found in a coma with
his jaw completely ripped off. It seems "Rusty Nail" is a lonely phantom
of the backroads who has just snapped, as he sets out to prove to the two
brothers, and later Venna, just how deadly playing games can be.
As frightening as any film to come out in the last five years, "Joy Ride"
is an impeccably visceral cinematic experience that never, or rarely, stops
long enough to allow the viewer to take a much-needed breath. A sort of
take-off on Steven Spielberg's stunningly creepy 1971 film, "Duel," in
which a man is accosted by a severely unhinged trucker, imagine
the opening twenty minutes of the recent "Jeepers Creepers" stretched
out to feature-length standards, and that comes pretty close to what we
Directed by the meticulous John Dahl (1994's "The Last Seduction"), who
excels at telling noirish stories of murder and mayhem, "Joy Ride" is
an absolutely merciless thriller--exciting, marvelously crafted, strongly
acted, and with more than a few moments destined to increase your heartbeat.
Taking a short premise that could be described as "three victims terrorized
by a giant truck," director Dahl and screenwriters Clay Tarver and J.J.
Abrams thankfully do not clutter the ingenious storyline with lots of
subplots, nor do they feel it necessary to ever visually unveil the psychopath
behind the big rig. Not knowing exactly what Lewis, Fuller, and Venna
are up against makes for an even more unshakably eerie experience.
Paul Walker (2001's "The Fast and the Furious") and Steve Zahn (2001's
"Saving Silverman") make for a winning, believable combination as siblings
Lewis and Fuller, who haven't seen each other in a while, but remain
close-knit. They are likable and attractive protagonists, with Walker
playing someone a bit less outgoing than he is usually accustomed to,
and Zahn managing to steal scenes with his barbed dialogue exchanges.
Rounding out the trio, Leelee Sobieski (2001's "The Glass House") adds
welcome femme support to counterbalance the boys, and as always, delivers
an on-target, convincing performance in a role that refuses to appear
underwritten (even if it is on the written page).
Director Dahl, along with sharp editing and a stirring music score by Marco
Beltrami (2000's "Scream 3"), successfully ratchets up so much genuine
tension that it occasionally becomes almost unbearable. An elongated
action sequence in which the three are tracked down in a cornfield by
the truck, and the nerve-racking climax set at a rural, roadside motel,
are especially impressive.
With unsettlingly atmospheric cinematography by Jeff Jur (2000's "Panic")
that casts the characters and their dire surroundings with shadows and
brightly colored neon lights, "Joy Ride" is a marvelously executed fright
film that, like "Jeepers Creepers," offers up more horrific and effective
moments than the genre usually has to offer. Driving home after the
screening, a truck happened to follow closely behind me with their high
beams on, and thinking back on the disquieting movie I had just experienced,
I must admit, I was a little on edge. Thank god it didn't turn and follow
me into my driveway.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman