2001, R, 96 min. Directed by John Dahl. Starring Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, Brian Leckner, Jim Beaver, Stuart Stone, Jessica Bowman.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 5, 2001
At one point or another it's happened to all of us: You're driving cross-country in your new '71 Chrysler Newport with your best girl on one side and your hooligan brother on the other when you accidentally incur the wrath of a deranged horny trucker who pursues you with the sort of single-minded bloodlust usually reserved for cocker spaniels and their tails -- big breath -- and the cops won't believe you and some poor schmoe's had his jaw ripped off and there's blood everywhere and you just know your chances of getting laid after all this are just flying out the goddamn window like so many body parts in the slipstream. Whew! Don't you tell me this isn't an everyday occurrence, pal, because I've seen Children of the Corn, and I've been to Oklahoma. Even if this sort of “white-knuckle thrill ride” isn't a daily event in your humdrum life, it still makes for some fine Tennessee sippin' cinema, the kind that goes down smooth and then turns into a length of bob-wire in your gullet. Fun is, after all, relative, and director John Dahl's idea of a good time is to see how much suspense he can generate in a single screening. With Red Rock West and The Last Seduction Dahl almost single-handedly brought back noir filmmaking, though less so with the antonymic Unforgettable and spotty Rounders . With Joy Ride he's almost but not quite back to form. It's a simple story simply told, the familiar road-trip-gone-horribly-awry tale (and not unlike the recent Jeepers Creepers minus the supernatural elements) that has been done to, uh, death countless times before. Dahl, who really does know what he's doing when it comes to investing a scene with both heebies and jeebies, is a notch or two above most, though; he knows how to utilize the uneasy sounds of silence as well as when to kick out the jams, and he's not afraid to lob in a few extraneous kidnappings for good measure, which is always nice. Walker and Zahn play brothers Lewis and Fuller, and Sobieski plays Lewis' love interest Venna. All three are pursued by a psycho-gearjammer (never seen, but voiced by Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill, Ted Levine) after they play an ill-advised CB-radio prank on the lonelyhearted trucker from hell. Much bad craziness, as they say, ensues. Joy Ride's direct forebears are The Hitcher, and, before that, Steven Spielberg's superb made-for-TV movie Duel , and though Dahl's film lacks both the spare edginess of the former and the sheer monster-movie punch of the latter, it's an entertaining chase nonetheless. All three of the leads are adequate -- their only direction was probably along the lines of “look scared, now drive fast. Okay, that's great, can you give me a sob?” -- but it's Dahl's giggly sense of horror-show timing (and editing) that ratchets up the anxiety quotient so painfully far. Obvious plot holes are scattered throughout the movie -- the killer is privy to so much random information that he ought to be working for the NSA -- but for all the minor, and occasionally not-so-minor, missteps, Joy Ride is superior to the majority of the yawn-inducing suspensers out there these days. Take as a compliment, Mr. Dahl, that your film made me pine for the sloe-eyed mug of Robert Mitchum, the original hunter in the night.