- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

"Joy Ride" is anything but joyous, but it may prove freakishly diverting if you're in the mood for a highway horror thriller contrived to rival Steven Spielberg's 30-year-old teeth-gnasher for network television, "Duel." Some of the elements even are wittily antique the reliance on citizens-band radio transmissions as an indispensable plot device, for example.
John Dahl, who directed "Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction" and "Rounders," is not unskilled or entirely cutthroat; he demonstrates consistent pictorial flair while orchestrating suspense and dread along roads in the far West. For a while, he even seems more considerate about arousing fear and recognizing real-world anxieties than your typical Hollywood sadist. The disarming attributes ultimately prove misleading, but one feels a certain gratitude while they last.
In "Duel" a motorist played by Dennis Weaver, embarking on a sales trip, is pursued with accelerating homicidal vindictiveness by a demonic truck. The driver is never seen, as far as one can tell, and this disembodied form of menace turns the tailgating vehicle into a mechanized beast.
The exposition in "Joy Ride" is cleverly low-key and engaging. Paul Walker, as a sweet-natured freshman at the University of California at Berkeley named Lewis Thomas, receives a call from Leelee Sobieski as a former high school sweetheart named Venna, enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Summer vacation approaches. Lewis seizes an opportunity to reconcile. He proposes to pick up Venna so they can drive the rest of the way together to their hometown in New Jersey. Then he acquires a used car to make the date feasible.
Enroute, an act of fraternal generosity sets the stage for menace. Lewis springs his black-sheep older brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), from a jail in Green River, Wyo. While repairs are being made on their Newport convertible, Fuller has an old CB radio installed so he can pass the time prankishly. When the brothers feign a female voice to simulate a seductress, a raspy-voiced trucker who calls himself Rusty Nail becomes intrigued. Fuller arranges a rendezvous at a motel that comes into view. He also persuades Lewis that they should lurk in a next-door room and hear what happens when Rusty Nail knocks on the door of Room 17.
Unfortunately, Room 17 is occupied, and what ensues is a murder. The suspenseful highlight of the movie, this crime is overheard vaguely rather than witnessed as the brothers press their ears against a dark wall and then begin to fear for their own safety.
The apprehension is enhanced as the camera dollies toward a painting on the wall, a murky seascape. At one time or another, most people probably have found themselves next door to ranting motel couples, uncertain of how long to remain patient before ringing the desk or the police. "Joy Ride" exploits this dilemma in an eerily quiet way: Something dreadful is happening in the next room, but it's happening out of sight and nearly out of earshot.
The next day, the unlucky male guest in Room 17 is discovered to be alive but hideously maimed. The local police, furious with the brothers upon learning of the prankish preamble, read them the riot act and escort them to the hospital to witness the damage. From this moment on, "Joy Ride" loses touch with a more or less genuine sense of pain and shame.
Lewis and Fuller ditch the CB radio and believe they have heard the last of Rusty Nail. They pick up Venna and drive as far as Nebraska, where they discover that the vindictive stranger is stalking them. Rusty Nail reveals that he has abducted one of Venna's classmates, a dishy bystander named Charlotte (Jessica Bowman); then he lures the trio into a noctural encounter in a cornfield that makes Venna a second captive. It's pretty much a gangway for appalling possibilities.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers imagine that it's still appropriate to horse around. An elaborate sequence is devoted to the spectacle of Lewis and Fuller stripping and entering a restaurant to appease Rusty Nail. By this point, the context won't accommodate facetiousness in the "Road Trip" vein; it refuses to harmonize with the bloodcurdling stuff.
To the extent that you give the movie credit for taking fear in earnest, you recoil at its refusal to discriminate between plausible and outrageous, even heartless, manipulation down the stretch. The seemingly sincere setups are sideswiped eventually by wanton twists and payoffs. "Joy Ride" seems to be the handiwork of incorrigible teases.
"Joy Ride"
R (Violence, terror and offensive language, according to the MPAA; frequent profanity, graphic violence and sexual vulgarity; occasional nudity)
Directed by John Dahl. Written by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams.
97 minutes

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