Joy Ride (2001)
"How much fun can you have... when the joke is on you?"
Two brothers going on a road trip to pick up a girl decide to have some fun on the CB radio they had installed in their car. Assuming the role of ‘Candy Cane’, they pretend to be a lonely and attractive girl looking for love. When a trucker with the designation of ‘Rusty Nail’ begins to show an interest, the brothers decide to play a prank on him by arranging to meet him at a motel. When the prank backfires in a deadly way, the brothers realise they’ve gone too far. But Rusty Nail isn’t finished with them and proceeds to stalk and torment them.
Taking plenty of inspiration from such road terror flicks as The Hitcher and, most obviously, Duel, Joy Ride is an effective and mildly thrilling piece of fluff which is far better than it has any right to be. Coming slap bang in 2001, right amid the teen horror boom brought on by Scream and its numerous pop culture-referential clones, Joy Ride wisely decided to skip the self-awareness and goes back to basics. Joy Ride was renamed Roadkill in the UK, presumably due to the phrase ‘joy ride’ referring to criminals breaking into and stealing a car before going for an illegal, and often dangerous, drive. But I’m using the Joy Ride title here as it’s far better.
Producer and co-scripter J.J. Abrams was, back in the day, a jobbing screenwriter most famous for TV show Felicity and had a few films under his belt but nothing major – he was probably impatiently waiting like the rest of us for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, unbeknownst to anyone that he would go on to take control of one of cinema’s biggest and most beloved franchises. Though the script has plenty of gaping plot holes – such as how Rusty knows so much about these characters and how he always seems to be one step ahead of them – the choices that the main characters make are generally good and logical. In one particular scene, instead of hanging around a motel room waiting for something to happen, the freaked-out teenagers simply jump into their car and speed off, which any sane person would have done in that situation. Abrams keeps things ticking and keeps the audience guessing. There are a few twists along the way here, nothing too shocking, but enough to stop the film from drifting into autopilot. There’s little chance of that happening though, as set piece follows set piece – Abrams mantra that audiences will let lapses in logic slide if everything else in the film is working clearly evident throughout the swift hour and a half running time.
Director John Dahl channels his inner Hitchcock as best he can, plying on the noir elements with a distinct twentieth century expression, giving his interiors green or red hues, setting a lot of the film at night, and dwelling on the seedier underworld of long-distance driving from motels with porn on the television sets to grubby gas stations. The initial prank sequence, where the brothers sit in the room next door and listen to what is going on, features excellent sound design, ramping up the tension without the audience seeing a thing. Dahl also throws in some excellent set pieces, particularly a chase inside a huge cornfield where Rusty uses the search lights on his truck to locate the hiding teenagers. In fact this cornfield set piece was part of the original ending (it was included on the DVD as a bonus feature and you can see why it was ditched, along with all of the other bits they originally planned) but new scenes were shot and added as the creative team struggled to find the right ending. The problem by this point is that the film keeps trying to top itself and up the ante every time the teenagers and Rusty lock horns. Joy Ride slowly begins to run out of petrol with too many false endings but has the good decency to finally quit whilst it’s ahead. The ending finally decided upon is satisfying enough to close the plot (although not enough to prevent a sequel).
Paul Walker stars in the same year as The Fast and the Furious hit the cinemas, with the filmmakers no doubt hoping to capitalise on his sudden stardom (though I’m guessing Joy Ride was made first and just sat around idly as the creative team messed around with the script and reshoots). Walker is ok in the role; he’s basically just plying the same Paul Walker character he did in The Fast and Furious – drives fast, shouts a lot and does little else. Steve Zahn tones down his goofiness and he and Walker play off each other perfectly as the brothers, with a little tension between them under the surface. Leelee Sobieski, third-billed, doesn’t even appear until about forty-five minutes into the film and then her role is simply to act as bait and become the damsel-in-distress. Arguably, she ruins the dynamic of the two male leads who had been working fine together and taking it in turns to take control of the situation.
Perhaps the best performance in Joy Ride comes from someone who is never seen – Ted Levine, famous for his role as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (amongst many other films) provides the voice of Rusty Nail, only heard through the CB radio. His bass tones, full of intimidation and authority, are the perfect output for the truck driver, with Levine crafting Rusty Nail as an almost-supernatural menace whose actions speak just as loud as his words. The fact we never see the character in the flesh is immaterial – by just a voice alone, this character is more intimidating than 90% of cinematic slashers, psychopaths and madmen.
Joy Ride is highly underrated thriller which went under the radar a lot, most likely overshadowed in the same year by Jeepers Creepers which had a similar plot of friends travelling across country on a road trip being terrorised by someone/something. Is it a genre classic? No. Is it going to be on your repeat watch list? Probably not. Is it a great way to spend an hour and a half? You bet. Joy Ride is a pleasant surprising suspense thriller with enough tricks to keep you hooked.
Also Known As: Roadkill
Director(s): John Dahl
Writer(s): Clay Tarver, J.J. Abrams
Actor(s): Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, Jessica Bowman, Stuart Stone
Duration: 97 mins