It took approximately 30 seconds for most critics to proclaim that John Dahl’s Joy Ride was a de facto remake of Steven Spielberg’s classic 1971 TV-movie Duel. The surface similarity—unseen homicidal truck driver menaces freaked-out motorist on open highway in the American West—was almost too obvious, prompting knee-jerk declarations that Joy Ride was a pretty derivative sort of scary movie. At best, Dahl and screenwriter J. J. Abrams had taken a 1970s study in emasculation insecurity and tied it up in a moderately diverting, 1990s “fill-in-the-blank from hell” package.
But there’s something more primal at work in the creepy appeal of Joy Ride—the same way that the best thrillers, from The Exorcist to Jaws to The Blair Witch Project, have tapped into something primal. Make no mistake, Joy Ride is as ridiculous as it is ridiculously entertaining, with Steve Zahn’s kinetic screen presence energizing the film even when the villain’s actions make no sense whatsoever. It also taps into a frighteningly timely 21st century sense of antisocial behavior born of presumed anonymity, whether it’s manifested as road rage or “flaming” someone on an Internet bulletin board. Sometimes, Joy Ride posits, forgetting there’s another (possibly demented) human being at the other end of your off-the-cuff thoughtlessness can come back to bite you in the ass.
The ass-bitten protagonists of Joy Ride are Lewis (Paul Walker) and Fuller Thomas (Zahn), mismatched siblings on an eastbound cross-country road trip. Responsible, uptight Lewis is on his way home for the summer after his freshman year at Berkeley, and offers estranged black sheep brother Fuller a ride after his latest brush with the law (a drunk and disorderly arrest in Salt Lake City). Fuller’s gift of a CB radio initially appears to be a peace offering, but becomes a way for Fuller to goad Lewis into posing as female trucker “Candy Cane” for a joke at the expense of a gravel-throated fellow with the handle Rusty Nail (an uncredited Matthew Kimbrough).
Unfortunately, Rusty Nail’s sense of humor proves wanting. Instead of chuckling ruefully to himself at being lured to a businessman’s motel room, he rips off the businessman’s jaw and begins stalking les freres Thomas. And when Lewis’ gal pal Venna (Leelee Sobieski) joins the traveling party, things get really nasty.
Even more than most high-concept thrillers, Joy Ride practically dares you to find coherence in its plot progression. After the initial revelation that Rusty Nail is a short-tempered, nigh-inhuman psychopath, Dahl and Abrams allow him to become a player of elaborate games, for no better reason than having him act in a consistently psychopathic manner would cut the film’s running time about in half. Joy Ride bounces around with a profound case of tone confusion, never seeming to grasp that the same guy who would mutilate his victims probably wouldn’t blackmail them into entering a roadside diner naked just for kicks and giggles.
Such meanderings would matter a lot more if the film weren’t such giddy fun. The script by Felicity creator Abrams trots out far more clever dialogue than clever narrative development, but it may just seem clever because Steve Zahn gets to speak so much of it. Zahn may be his generation’s next comic superstar, a magician at twisting the most mileage out of every single syllable. (Few other performers could turn the word “no” into such a marvelous punch line.) The initially thin character dynamics—the earnest Fuller secretly longs for Venna, the siblings squabble in the Mom-always-liked-you-best vein—grow thinner by the minute until they’re eventually rendered transparent, but ultimately Zahn’s hilarious performance steamrolls over every niggling objection.
And it doesn’t hurt that Joy Ride’s moment-to-moment tension rarely lets down. Director Dahl came out of the blocks strong in his career with the sly thrillers Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, then stumbled through more recent efforts like Unforgettable (hint: it wasn’t). Here he’s back in form, damning the logic and launching the action full speed ahead. Joy Ride challenges With a Friend Like Harry as the most viscerally satisfying thriller in this lean year, and the strongest dose of ordinary guy-in-peril panic since Breakdown in 1997.
Still, there’s something about the subtext of Joy Ride that gives it an extra kick just when its implausibilities seem to be taking over. The prank that provides the film’s key plot point seems initially innocuous, a goof no more apparently harmful than sending your neighbor a dozen pizzas. But in a simpler time, you knew your neighbor well enough to realize that your little joke wouldn’t land you an axe in your head for your trouble. Joy Ride appears in a society of technological isolation, where plenty of your fellow citizens rarely think twice about flipping off strangers in traffic or insulting them over e-mail. It’s a cautionary tale for everyone who’s stared nervously in the rearview mirror to make sure the guy they honked at wasn’t following them home, or hoped that a contentious online exchange didn’t involve a hacker with a really bad attitude. Common courtesy could just be a smart way not to end up dead.
Viewers of Joy Ride aren’t likely to emerge pondering its perceptive sociology, especially not after a ghastly kicker ending that almost spoils such a wild ride. It’s more likely to get you where you feel than where you think, a perfect wit-spiked tale for an anxious age. And if it encourages a little more “net-iquette” or less aggressive driving in the name of self-preservation, so much the better.
Joy Ride (R) HHH Directed by John Dahl. Starring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker and Leelee Sobieski.