Thursday, October 13, 2011

Joy Ride Movie Review: Revisiting an Old Non-Classic

The director John Dahl had a fantastic start in feature films, making the neo-noirs Red Rock West and The Last Seduction back-to-back and then Rounders later. After a big-budget commercial fiasco in The Great Raid, Dahl has stuck mainly to television since 2005. He has directed several episodes each of “True Blood,” “Dexter” and “Californication,” all centered on subject matter that Dahl has been drawn to and executed quite well in his film career. It was mainly on the strength of his early work that drew me initially to Joy Ride, a fairly standard genre film that Dahl elevates slightly above the average thriller. Coming back to the film about a decade later, I’m somewhat disappointed, though not particularly surprised, to find it doesn’t hold up as well as I remember.

It’s a fairly conventional thriller about a psychotic hunting a few young innocents who played a practical joke on the wrong truck driver. It plays on the fear of anonymous motels and truck stops, the open road in the American west, and the creepy trucker stereotype. The premise is simple and pure: two men and a woman on a road trip use a CB radio to prank a trucker who goes by the handle Rusty Nail. Trucker takes revenge in a series of increasingly diabolical and terrifying acts, working toward an intense climax involving a damsel in distress, lots of screaming and hyperventilating, police kicking in doors, some blood, and the thumping of an overproduced musical score. Incredibly, Marco Beltrami, who wrote the score, also co-wrote the Oscar nominated, so subtle you might not notice it score for The Hurt Locker.

Paul Walker plays Lewis and Steve Zahn his troubled older brother Fuller. Though it’s hard to imagine Zahn as the kind of man who’s regularly having run-ins with the law, his presence is what keeps you from losing attention more than anything else. He’s a charismatic actor and a hilarious performer, finding ingenious ways to deliver a line for a laugh without ever sounding like he intended it. He adds levity to the early scenes, but when things get dark later, there’s less opportunity for Zahn to do what he does best. Walker was one of the hot young men of the moment, but watching him again it’s no shock that his career continues only as long as Universal keeps making Fast and Furious sequels. He has all the screen presence of a cardboard box. His performance is slightly better than the secondary actors I used to watch on stage in high school.

The young woman who travels with them is, Venna, Lewis’s friend whom he would like to have a bit more with. Leelee Sobieski, another young actor whose star sparkled and faded as quickly as Walker’s, plays her as somewhat flirty and sultry. Dahl makes no secret about how he wants us to view her, shooting her from behind lying in bed in her underwear. But the hint of sexual activity never goes beyond just that. Joy Ride remains firmly planted in the realm of PG-13, which means it can’t get quite as gory as The Hitcher, the 1986 film starring Rutger Hauer that is an obvious inspiration to screenwriters Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams (yes, that J.J. Abrams before he was the sensational creator of “Lost.”)

If you can get past the inconsiderable acting of two thirds of the lead performers, Dahl creates great atmosphere and suspense where he can, especially considering he’s working off a rather predictable plotline. He gets an assist from cinematographer Jeff Jur, who’s fond of bathing night scenes in the red hue emitted by the neon signs that adorn the ubiquitous motels on the sides of America’s highways. It’s a seldom subtle, but nonetheless effective way of telegraphing the impending danger that awaits Lewis, Fuller and Venna.

It’s worth noting that what makes Joy Ride about ten times creepier than it has any right to be is the voiceover acting (uncredited) of Ted Levine as Rusty Nail. Levine also played the serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, bringing with him a pedigree of sheer terror. I may be wrong, but it sounds like his voice has been slightly manipulated to sound deeper and raspier. Be that as it may, it’s the final detail that makes this otherwise throwaway film worth your time if you catch it on late-night cable and you haven’t got anything better to do.

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