Directed by: John Dahl
Starring: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, Jim Beaver
B-picture thrills with a vengeance are to be had in John Dahl's Joy Ride, an efficient and stylish exercise in cinematic mayhem. True, it has a pair of central characters -- Fuller (Steve Zahn) and Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) -- brothers who are neither very bright nor especially likable. Lewis is basically just a bit dim and a born patsy for his brother. Fuller, on the other hand, is both pretty thick-skulled and completely lacking in any moral scruples. The fellow doesn't even draw the line at hitting on his brother's quasi-girlfriend, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), despite the fact that said brother just bailed him out of the hoosegow a few scenes earlier. The film manages to keep Fuller's more questionable traits from looming too large by making him crudely funny. For the most part, it works -- as long as you don't think about it too much. In an interesting -- and refreshing -- turnaround, the only character with much in the way of brains or thoughtfulness is Venna, who, as played by Leelee Sobieski, manages to hold the proceedings in place with a role that might easily have been just another "female in peril" routine. The plot has Fuller and Lewis driving across the country -- picking up Venna in Boulder on the way -- from California to New Jersey when Fuller gets the bright idea of buying a CB radio and whiling away the time by indulging in archaic CB lingo before turning his attention to sophomoric practical jokes. The big mistake comes when Fuller coerces Lewis into impersonating a woman's voice and leading on a psychotic truck driver who calls himself Rusty Nail. The situation comes to a head when Fuller decides to get at both Rusty Nail and an obnoxious character staying at the same motel as them by having Lewis tell Rusty Nail to meet him at midnight in the man's room. The not-so-innocent prank turns nasty when it transpires that Rusty Nail has ripped the man's jaw off and left him in a highway median to die. From there on, it's a case of Rusty Nail following the pair -- and ultimately Venna and even her college roommate, Charlotte -- in order to exact gruesome revenge on them. There are plot-holes aplenty here if you give yourself time to think about them, but director Dahl doesn't afford that luxury as he deftly moves from suspense set-piece to suspense set-piece with seemingly effortless panache. In retrospect, you might rightly question just exactly how he learns so much about the brothers, not to mention Venna and Charlotte. While it's happening, though, it's hard to concern yourself with such details. First and last, Joy Ride is an unpretentious thrill machine. Taken on that level, it works beautifully. Plus, there's the bonus of Sobieski's Venna. But it's really a director's movie, with Dahl staging a variety of well-crafted suspense sequences with unerring accuracy, while affording the proceedings moments of genuine dread through the use of subtle post-production image manipulation. In addition, Dahl remembers not to do the one thing that ultimately scuttled Victor Salva's recent Jeepers Creepers: At no point does he allow us to get a clear look at Rusty Nail, so the character remains an utterly unknown and unspeakable manifestation of evil. No, it's not a great film. It won't stand up to close scrutiny in terms of plot, even though the suspense sequences themselves are even more impressive on a second look. It's the 21st century equivalent of a drive-in movie -- except that it's everything you hoped a drive-in movie would be and almost never was.