Written by: Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams
Directed by: John Dahl
Starring: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, and Leelee Sobieski
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Looking foward to the storm. Keeps everyone inside, washes everything clean."
When I decided to revisit Joy Ride, it must have ripped open the fabric in the universe or something because I suddenly found myself back in 2001. Or maybe I just got sucked into watching the premiere of VH1’s I Love the 2000s. Because I could not resist the siren songs of Dido and Afroman, the latter is exactly what happened. It looks like we’re already nostalgic for the aughts now. Seems like just yesterday we were pining over VHS and Beta. I guess nobody misses the 90s.
At any rate, I actually watched the 2001 entry in the retrospective for anthropological purposes, specifically to see if anyone bothered to mention Joy Ride. No one did, which is bullshit because Joy Ride is definitely a film that was released in 2001. In lieu of VH1’s talking heads, allow me to set the scene: upon this film’s release in theaters, star Paul Walker was just becoming known as the guy from The Fast & The Furious. Leelee Sobieski’s star was on the rise, as it would be until Jennifer Lawrence commissioned a painting to hex her career, Dorian Gray style. Steve Zahn was leading man material. Co-scripter J.J. Abrams was a journeyman screenwriter most famous for Felicity and was just one of many people nervously awaiting the next Star Wars prequel. Perhaps most tellingly, Joy Ride wasn’t yet a direct-to-DVD affair and was actually released on VHS when it hit home video.
Instead, it was dropped in a pretty high-profile spot during its theatrical release in October, when the world was introduced to Rusty Nail, the franchise’s enigmatic killer trucker. It takes a while for him to show up here, though; as is customary for most franchise slashers, he’s initially relegated to the backseat in favor of a pair of brothers, Lewis (Walker) and Fuller (Zahn). The former’s a doe-eyed college kid, while the latter’s a fuck-up; Lewis is actually on his way home for summer vacation and plans to pick up his friend Venna (Sobieski) in Colorado when he has to detour and bail Fuller out of jail. During the trip, Fuller gets the bright idea to install a CB radio and fuck with truckers. One of them (Rusty Nail, voiced by the inimitable Ted Levine) doesn’t appreciate their ruse and decides to stalk them up and down the highway.
Thirteen years later, Joy Ride is still quite enjoyable. In retrospect, we probably should have recognized Abrams’s intentions to star in his own remake of Steven Spielberg’s career since this is an obvious riff on Duel (it’s even peppered with references to Spielberg’s debut). Of course, you could draw inspiration from worse, what with Spielberg being one of the greatest directors of all-time and Duel being one of the greatest psycho-trucker movies ever. Much of Joy Ride’s effectiveness rests in Abrams and Clay Tarver’s script, which is nicely propulsive and pulpy once it gets in gear. Where the sequels would come to emphasize gore and Rusty’s increasingly complicated slaughter mechanizations, this first outing is more suspenseful and relies on mounting intrigue as Rusty shifts from prey to predator.
The escalation is especially effective. Tonally, Joy Ride takes on the feel of a prank-gone-wrong slasher: everything’s fun and games until someone gets kidnapped. The beginning plays like a sunny road movie, with the two brothers embarking on a light-hearted trip that turns ominous and dark during an overnight stay in a motel; suddenly the film shifts into full film-noir mode: drenched in rain and moonlight, with the two brothers caught up in unwanted violence. Director John Dahl handles the transition well; calling it a potboiler isn’t quite accurate since it’s more akin to someone placing a pot on the boiler and suddenly cranking it up to a high setting.
Once Rusty sets the brothers in his sights, the film rarely relents with some finely crafted sequences of suspense that are quite playful and sometimes thrive on misdirection (goddamn, this script is essentially the Rosetta Stone of Abrams’s career). A highlight includes an early run-in with an ice trucker who isn’t what he appears to be, and the film has fun toying with the audience from that point forward. It’s a reflection of its antagonist in that respect; truthfully, Ol’ Rusty has become more boring as each sequel has seen him degenerate into a one-note psycho. Here, there’s a faint sense of pathos to him—at first, he really just seems like a lonely trucker who finds himself suddenly jilted when the girl he thinks he’s been talking to ends up being a punk kid playing a joke. Granted, he maybe takes his revenge too far by ripping a guy’s jaw off in retaliation and hunting down those who wronged him (on a related note: nobody target this motherfucker on an episode of Catfish).
His targets make for worthwhile company as you wait for the film to take off. Zahn is top-billed but plays more of a supporting role; he’s one of those guys who I find more effective when he’s not being a total goof (see also: John Leguizamo), which is the case here, where he’s just sort of good-natured but slightly dickish in a fairly straight role. Walker is the actual star , and you can see him starting to evolve into the brash, confident persona he’d exude for the rest of his career. There’s actually a little Travolta in him, especially in the gleam in his eyes and in his smile, and Dahl was among the first to realize Walker looks awesome behind the wheel of a car.
Looking back over her filmography, it looks like Joy Ride represented a period of peak Sobieski; in many cases, a turn like this would be the requisite early horror movie a young actress would have to check off on the resume, but I’m not quite sure she had the career we expected out of her (unless you predicted she’d one day be roundhouse kicked by Nic Cage). She’s clearly cut out of the Jamie Lee mold of final girls—tough, resourceful, but sweet—and she handles it well enough. Really, the script isn’t much of an actor’s showcase and is more concerned with stringing together on set of white-knuckle thrills after another.
And yet, it’s that screenplay that’s truly the star. It’s obviously not the most inventive or innovative of its kind, but it moves with a purpose. Between its ludicrous sidewinding, Dahl's ability to find a desolate menace in the untamed wilderness of the American blacktop, and Levine’s delightfully creepy voice work, Joy Ride makes for a great little junk thriller, the sort of thing you find it hard to turn off whenever you happen to see it on cable. Films can aspire to greater heights, of course, but with the horror genre at a crossroads in 2001 (slashers were still smarting from Scream’s deep cuts, and Hollywood hadn’t decided to import and remake everything just yet), Joy Ride serves as a decent enough representative for this somewhat listless era. Buy it!
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