In the early-1990s, my dad had a CB radio in his truck that I would often turn on, attempting to make contact with the 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 for their trip. Impersonating a woman they label "Candy Cane," they pass the time flirting with a lonely, gravelly-voiced trucker named "Rusty Nail" before inviting him for a late-night motel rendezvous. 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 back roads who has just snapped, 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 have here.
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.
©2001 by Dustin Putman