Director John Dahl is best known for his neo-noir films from the 1990’s. His filmography includes critically-acclaimed thrillers Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, and Rounders. In spite of his track record, Dahl was an odd choice to helm the J.J.Abrams-penned thriller, Joy Ride. On the surface, Abrams’ highway thriller was essentially an MTV-update on Steven Spielberg’s early 1970’s thriller, Duel. Nevertheless, Dahl and Abrams turned the Paul Walker-headed Joy Ride into a surprise box office and critical hit in 2001.
When college student Lewis Thomas’ high school crush, Venna, asks him to pick her up from school for the holidays, he’s more than happy to oblige. He trades in his plane ticket for a beat-up 1971 Chrysler Newport and hits the highways. But the road trip gets sidetracked when Lewis has to stop and bail out his troubled older brother, Fuller. To pass the time on their road trip, Fuller buys and installs an old CB radio. When they stumble across an eccentric trucker who goes by the handle name, ‘Rusty Nail’, the brothers play a cruel prank that ends tragically. Now ‘Rusty Nail’ is stalking the brothers across empty highways in his semi-truck.
Dahl’s Neo-Noir Experience Elevates The Suspense in Joy Ride
Dahl knows how to set-up and film a suspenseful scene. Look no further than his filmography for proof. And Joy Ride benefits from Dahl’s deft hand. Though it’s a movie that could have been just a glossy recycle of Duel, Dahl creates some beautifully-shot edge-of-your-seat moments. The early motel scene that finds the brothers listening as their prank goes horribly wrong is a white-knuckle highlight. Dahl’s decision to slowly zoom in on an oceanside painting lit up by lightning from outside lends surprisingly elegance to the movie.
…Dahl doesn’t exploit the movie’s built-in cat-and-mouse scenario on the highways as much as one would hope.
To some extent, however, Dahl misses opportunities on the film’s highway trek. While Duel felt like one long bout of sustained tension, Dahl doesn’t quite exploit the movie’s built-in cat-and-mouse sceneraio on the highways. As a result, Joy Ride feels a bit uneven. But Dahl compensates for the shortcoming with a handful of off-road chases, including a stunningly photographed stalk-and-chase scene in a cornfield.
Joy Ride ‘Nails’ Its Climax
It’s this sense of inevitably along with Dahl’s masterful staging in yet another seeding motel room that results in a heart-pounding climax.
If Dahl doesn’t entirely maintain a consistent feeling of dread, the neo-noir filmmaker makes up or it with the climax. Joy Ride is a case of ‘all roads leading’ to an inevitable showdown. It’s this sense of inevitably along with Dahl’s masterful staging in yet another seedy motel room that results in a heart-pounding climax. In fact, Joy Ride boasts one of the better climaxes you’ll find in a mainstream thriller. Seventeen years after its release, it’s an ending that holds up well to repeat viewing. Abrams also deserves credit for a lean screenplay that lends itself to Dahl’s filmmaking style.
Steve Zahn Steals Joy Ride With a Manic Performance
Paul Walker fans will enjoy Joy Ride as reminder of how effortlessly likeable he was as a young actor. Yet there’s little doubt that Steve Zahn steals the show as the screw-up brother, Fuller. Zahn turns in a manic performance that keeps Joy Ride moving along in those slower moments. To his credit, Zahn also makes Fuller a sympathetic character in spite of how unlikeable he should be for viewers .Conversely, Leelee Sobieski is given little to do as Venna. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Sobieski was pretty active with roles in several major films. Here in Joy Ride, she’s regulated to the love interest role and ‘damsel-in-distress’.
Though he’s not technically in Joy Ride, veteran character actor Ted Levine lends his voice to ‘Rusty Nail’. It’s a stroke of casting genius as Levine’s distinctive voice instantly makes the unseen ‘Rusty Nail’ an omnipresent threat. Any time Levine’s voice is speaking through the CB radio, the movie is instantly injected with a sense of urgency.
Joy Ride Holds Up Well As A Forgotten Gem
By and large, Joy Ride shakes off the inevitable comparisons to Duel, standing on its own as a fun thriller. Released in 2001, it could have also easily fallen in with the rash of MTV-styled thrillers that cycled in and out of theatres in the 1990’s. Dahl’s presence behind the camera, however, ensures that Joy Ride isn’t as dull as The Crush or Fear.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+