Joy Ride

| October 10, 2001

Antagonizing a psycho is never a good idea. Especially in the movies. John Dahl knows what he’ s doing behind the camera, having made some waves with his “everybody’s a little guilty” neo-noirs The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, but his intermittently effective direction can not overcome a bland leading man and a generic script with an inexplicably anti-climactic ending.
Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious) and Steve Zahn (borrowing a bit of Worm’s sleaziness, from Dahl’s Rounders) play Lewis and Fuller Thomas, estranged brothers driving cross-country to pick up Lewis’ potential girlfriend, Venna (Leelee Sobieski). After getting bailed out of jail, Fuller joins his clean-cut brother in the car and picks up a cheap CB radio with which to pass the time on the lonely mid-western roads. Once driving, Lewis succumbs to his older brother’s peer pressure and disguises himself as Candy Cane in order to toy with a sad-sack trucker named Rusty Nail, who’s making conversation on the dial.
Like a couple of jocks picking on a clueless nerd, the brothers lure the faceless man into a cruel practical joke. Having had an unpleasant encounter with a boarder at their motel room, Fuller convinces Lewis to set up a rendezvous between Rusty Nail and the non-existent Candy Cane, using the nasty boarder’s room (adjacent to their own) as the meeting place.
In a white-knuckle scene, the two of them listen through the wall as Rusty arrives at the room to find a grumpy middle-aged businessman and not a sweet-sounding truckette. Understandably upset, he rips the boarder’s jaw off. The next morning, the brothers find themselves being hunted and manipulated by a scorned trucker with a nasty mean streak.
So what does Fuller do? Not only does he not turn off the CB radio, he, upon hearing Rusty trolling the waves for Candy Cane, provokes the killer with a litany of curse words and insults. Good thinking. We are meant to believe that Fuller is an impulsive delinquent who can’t keep himself out of trouble, but Zahn’s playful affability and obvious wit do not jive with such unmitigated stupidity, no matter how much of a loose cannon his character is supposed to be. But better movies have hinged on such questionable developments, so on we go. Adding fuel to the fire, Lewis comes clean to the murderer and tells him that they invented Candy Cane as a joke, just to goof around. Rusty is none too pleased, and after the incensed trucker
reveals his pinpoint awareness of the brothers’ location, the hunt is on.
Dahl does a good job ratcheting up the suspense, and the scene at the motel is rivetingly played, as the director keeps our eyes focused on a painting as our ears strain, like the characters’, to pick up any definitive sounds from the other room. But once the chase begins, the movie peaks too early.
There is a scene with an ice truck that is too predictable to scare, and by the movie’s halfway point, what began as a promisingly Duel-like scenario has degenerated into heavily overdone “Jaws with a truck” territory (admittedly, though, there is a fine line between Duel and “Jaws with a truck”). At one point early on, the trucker has the duo trapped between a rig and a hard place, only to let them go, presumably to manufacture a more complex, equally ineffective scheme of revenge.
Once Venna (Lelee Sobieski–playing a pointless character) enters the scene, as the object of Lewis’ affections and the impetus for the cross-country drive, Rusty has taken his hunt to a new level and turned the tables on the pranksters. He forces them to humiliate themselves at a diner, and also raises the stakes by somehow getting hold of another victim from Venna’s school. Suddenly the film turns into a commentary on bullies, as the two brothers get what’s coming to them at the hands of a victimized loner. The trucker leads them into a showdown at a motel, and although some thrills are provided by the final showdown, an oddly consequence-free ending undermines the malevolence and impact of Rusty Nail’s character.
The movie vacillates between portraying the villain as a phantom, like in Spielberg’s accomplished Duel, and showcasing him as an over-the-top psychopath, akin to Rutger Hauer’s character in The Hitcher. The normally welcome Zahn has his comic charisma neutered by a lack of chemistry with his co-star, and any momentum his character gains is derailed by Walker’s strikingly passive performance as the easily convinced younger brother.
Dahl’s direction works only in fits and starts; enough to catch glimpses of his ability but not enough to sustain the film. The script’s unoriginality isn’t its problem; with a genre film like Joy Ride, it’s the director’s job to keep it interesting. The problem is the script’s inability to marry it’s suspenseful, faceless stalker story line with that of the “popular” kids’ comeuppance, while keeping the movie somewhat plausible and consistently engaging. Unfortunately, in the end, everybody comes up short.

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