CB radios and a lot of other moldy devices make a comeback in John Dahl’s Joy Ride. This thriller, about a trio of young adults who are terrorized by an anonymous trucker while driving cross-country, is a briskly directed affair, so streamlined that it plays less like a movie than a dramatized urban legend. But like most urban legends, there’s a camp retreat air about it that makes it impossible to take seriously. It suffers from timidity—it isn’t ruthless enough to finish the job it begins—and it begins evaporating in your mind before it’s even over.
College freshman Lewis Thomas (the vapidly handsome Paul Walker) is on his way to pick up his close friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) in Colorado, from where they plan to drive home to New Jersey for summer vacation. But Lewis spontaneously swings his car around when he learns that his older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), the black sheep of the family, has been jailed on a petty offense. With the loose cannon Fuller now in tow, Lewis resumes his journey, all the while resisting Fuller’s blandishments to create mischief. One of these ideas involves a used CB radio that Fuller has installed in Lewis’ car. Using a combustible form of psychological warfare, Fuller pressures his kid brother into crooning out (in the least feminine voice you’ve ever heard) a sexual invitation to a trucker known only by the handle “Rusty Nail.” But the prank blows up in the boys’ faces when Rusty Nail realizes he’s been had. Operating from behind the anonymity of his tinted windshield (with its strings of lights and shiny body, his truck looks as if one of the UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind had sprouted wheels and taken to the highway), Rusty Nail begins terrorizing the brothers in an increasingly deadly cat-and-mouse game.
When the guys pick Venna up, they don’t mention what’s happened in the hopes that they’ve shaken their hunter. But as soon as they retake the road, Rusty Nail is right on their tail again, and the succulent blonde in their presence causes him to redouble his efforts. With his truck that can serve as a multi-ton battering ram one second and vanish in a cloud of exhaust the next, and his mysterious ability to keep tabs on the brothers at all times, Rusty Nail is an almost supernatural presence, so fearsome that even the freewheeling Fuller is shocked to his senses. (Which is a shame: Steve Zahn is a lot more fun as a nut-case lowlife than as a sensibly frightened young man.) Nothing the brothers do—apologizing, appealing to the law, running faster, running slower—can throw the vengeful trucker off their trail.
At one point while flipping the TV channel in their motel room, Fuller asks Lewis, “Are you in the mood for a story or, like, a collection of scenes?” It’s a question that Clay Tarver and J.J. Abramas should have cut from their script because it only draws attention to the fact that Joy Ride is a collection of scenes, and not, like, a story. Again and again it holds out ideas—Lewis’ struggle for independence from his domineering older brother, his inability to reveal his feelings for Venna to her, Fuller’s readiness to betray Lewis by pursuing Venna himself—that it drops as soon as it utters them. Some scenes are developed for a seeming eternity yet come to nothing, such as a false alarm revolving around a credit card. Steven Spielberg’s similarly-plotted TV movie Duel offered the barest existential motivation for its madman trucker’s pursuit of Dennis Weaver, a far more satisfying choice than Joy Ride’s decision to build a movie’s worth of action around a junior high school prank. In its earlier drafts Joy Ride may have been meant as an allegory about the pitfalls of coming into adulthood, but whatever serious intent it once had is undone by its reliance on genre cliches, capped by a cynically predictable final twist. (Even on its own merits the twist doesn’t work—it’s made implausible by something that happens just before it occurs.)
Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt; sometimes it just induces lethargy. Dahl makes directorial decisions—shooting in heavy neon reds, squeezing his characters into airless little pockets of space—as if he’s working from a checklist. This isn’t the stuff of nightmares; it’s just obvious filmmaking. Nor does it help that Dahl has such little feeling for rural America. This is a movie that cries out for a little grounding in the real world because every situation in it feels workshopped to death. The supporting actors seem to have been cast for their physically freakish qualities—a beak-like nose, a pair of front teeth as large as Bugs Bunny’s—but clearly none were picked for their acting skill. When a macho barfly begins making ugly comments to Venna, it’s the coarseness of the scene’s conception, not the guy’s crudity, that’s the real turn-off.
Like many thrillers, Joy Ride is at its best when little seems to be happening. The moments in which the camera fixates on the CB’s red and yellow LED display just before Rusty Nail’s sex-tinged voice rematerializes in the darkness are far spookier than any of the mayhem wreaked by the massive semi. When the brothers, rendered impotent by guilt and horror, stand transfixed by the muffled sounds of violence coming from the motel room next door, it’s a purer homage to Hitchcock than Brian De Palma ever dreamed of. And Joy Ride offers one original note when its formulaic rhythms slacken to allow the relatively pastoral scene in which the brothers pick Venna up at her campus. They’re convinced that the nightmare is behind them, and though we want to believe it is too, we know that time isn’t on our side—the movie is scarcely halfway over.
Joy Ride, with its faceless implacable foe ladling out retribution for the young protagonists’ sexual misdeeds, is rooted less in noir—the genre in which Dahl made his reputation—than in slasher films. Although the movie is embroidered with erotic threads, they only amount to filigree. Where a movie such as Blue Velvet explored sexual initiation rites to their logical (if extreme) conclusions, Joy Ride doesn’t go any deeper than PG-13 shots of a braless Sobieski. This isn’t Joy Ride’s only failure of nerve. In scale and tone it calls to mind Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher, but Joy Ride lacks anything like the ghastly wake-up call the audience received late in that picture—Joy Ride just puts you to sleep and leaves you there. It’s pulp fiction without a nerve center.
– Tom Block