Joy Ride

I’ve long had great admiration for the creative teams that put together the best X-Files episodes. The ones that mix the macabre with the creepy with the scary with a splash of silly thrown in for good measure. “Joy Ride” reminds me of these great combinations. The situations are dire indeed, but this is no slasher flick, nor is it a parody. It walks that very fine line of the silly thriller.

The movie begins with our hunky hero Lewis (Paul Walker) on the phone with his “pal” Venna (Leelee Sobieski). They’re discussing the end of their college year, and going home to New Jersey. Venna also happens to mention how she’s broken up with her boyfriend and sure would like to drive home, you know, just to “decompress”. Well, presto-chango, Lewis cashes in his plane ticket, buys a car (well used) and takes off from Berkeley to pick up Venna in Boulder and have a nice little road trip.
At a dusty stop in the middle of nowhere (really, they show you on the map) Lewis calls to check in with his parents, only to find out that his chronic screw up brother is once again in jail, this time in Salt Lake City. A U-Turn for Lewis, and he’s off to save his miscreant sibling.

At this point in the movie, we meet Fuller Thomas (Steve Zahn) who, from his first line, becomes the center of the movie. The others simply ride in his wake. More about that later.

As the two brothers set off together with the intention of leaving Fuller in Denver, there is a subtle undertone of Fuller prodding Lewis to pull pranks, do crazy things and generally “go on, I dare ya”. This scene is nicely done. The brothers have clear affection for each other, but Fuller seems a bit impatient with his “good” brother, and Lewis seems anxious to show that he can be “bad”, too. A nicely played bit of long standing sibling dynamic.
As the road trip unfolds, Fuller acquires a CB radio for the car, and the two begin fooling around with all sorts of CB jargon, always with Fuller pushing Lewis just that one step further than he wants to go. They eventually end up in the midst of an increasingly elaborate practical joke involving a gravelly voiced truck called “Rusty Nail”. Old Rusty turns out to be quite twisted, and the practical joke turns into a virtual nightmare. I’m not going to tell any more, because it’s just too mean to spoil a good thriller.

A note about Rusty Nail. Virtually the entire part consists of a voice over a radio, one which is not specifically credited at the end of the movie. The voice sounded very familiar, but was hard to pin down. In some commentary included on the DVD, you learn that this is the voice of Ted Levine, certainly best known as the horrifying “Buffalo Bill” in “Silence of the Lambs”. The reason I recognized the voice, however, is that he now plays Capt. Stottlemeyer on the new series “Monk”. I never would have put the two together. His gravelly voice is absolutely a character of it’s own, without which the movie would definitely have lacked much of it’s creepy tone. Quite an achievement for a voice on a radio.

As I said before, the real center of the movie is Steve Zahn. This is the second movie I have seen him in recently, and he has been absolutely outstanding in both. His character in “Joy Ride” injects most of the humor into the film, and his delivery is at all times flawless, in both the humorous and the not so humorous parts. His character is surely the most fully developed, even though this type of movie certainly does not rely on character development as central to it’s effectiveness. We get a nice picture of Fuller as a sort of reckless, good hearted goof with an adolescent sense of humor and a knack for getting in trouble. Lewis and Venna are not nearly as fleshed out, with him being kind of a generic good guy with a crush, and her being kind of a generic pompous snob with full knowledge of said crush. It is Zahn who brings it together and makes it work at a level above the slasher flick. His dialogue is cleverly written, with the silliness fitting seemlessly with the character of Fuller as we come to know and like him.

There are a number of action sequences involving trucks that are both exciting and really scary. There are also non-action scenes where the tension is high enough that a ringing telephone made me jump. “Joy Ride” really works as a thriller, more suspenseful than anything I’ve seen in a long time. One of it’s finest assets is that none of the characters does the thriller/slasher hallmark “stupid thing”. No one walks into the dark basement in their underwear, or goes looking for their friend who “sure has been gone a long time”. Aside from the initial juvenile stupidity of the practical joke, the characters are not blatant idiots.

The ending, although a bit formulaic and predictable, is sufficiently creepy to maintain the movie’s tone. The pace varies within the movie but is generally fast enough during the action sequences to keep you hooked. The scenery also adds to the overall feel of the movie, with lots of lonesome highway with the occasional well placed gas station. The DVD version lets us see several alternative endings. All are lesser than the chosen one, but their inclusion gives us an idea of how easy it would be for this movie to slide into the generic slasher flick. Director John Dahl and writers Clay Tarver and JJ Abrams deserve much credit for avoiding this easy pitfall. The DVD also has commentary by Dahl and Tarver, and Zahn and Sobieski. I didn’t watch much of this, just a short bit of Zahn and Sobieski. But from what I saw, if you have a couple hours to blow watching the entire movie again with commentary, Zahn is hilarious.

Back to my earlier X-Files analogy, one of the background components that made the silly thriller episodes great was the perfection of the score by Mark Snow. “Joy Ride” really could have used a Mark Snow. The score tends to be very serious and heavy handed, and actually becomes a distraction at times. It just doesn’t quite reflect the tone of the movie, and is at times simply too loud.

“Joy Ride” is a fun movie for fans of the thriller, and worth seeing just for Zahn’s great performance. It is well paced with some great action and some very funny bits along the way. While most of the characters are not developed, that isn’t really the point of the movie. They actually seem purposely undeveloped. The heavy handed score certainly does not seriously harm the movie, and the extras on the DVD are fun. I think there should be a category of movie specifically designated the “silly thriller”. When well done (not an easy feat) they are great fun.

Note: I had a hard time deciding whether this movie was suitable for children, and was for some reason unable to edit that space blank on the review format. Although I have rated it suitable for children 13 and over, it is fairly violent and pretty scary. Although I’m sure most 13 year-olds have seen much worse, a parent might want to see this first if they had any concerns.

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