View Date: March 17th, 2002

Rating: ($$$$ out of $$$$$)


Paul Walker Lewis Thomas
Steve Zahn Fuller Thomas
Leelee Sobieski Venna Wilcox
Jessica Bowman Charlotte Campbell
Satch Huizenga Ice Truck Man
Matthew Kimbrough Rusty Nail
Ted Levine (voice) Rusty Nail 

Directed by:
John Dahl 

Written by:
Clay Tarver & Jeffrey Abrams 

Related Viewings:
Breakdown (1997)
Hitcher, The (1986)
Duel (1971)

Official Site:
Donnie Darko

Also see my reviews at:


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Joy Ride

The simple nature of life, and how little decisions can affect bigger events is a fascinating study that is often loused up by filmmakers who decide to forsake reality for amoral pleasure, emotional manipulation or decadent gore.  John Dahl is one who realizes the true potential that lies there, and has often captured and reflected it in his films.  From Red Rock West (a tale of mistaken identity gone horribly awry) to The Last Seduction (a gem of a movie about revenge, obsession and identity..gone awry) Dahl has repeatedly shown a talent for grabbing his audiences attention, relentlessly, and repeatedly digging his nails into the audience, and taking us along on the proverbial joyride through his world.  Joy Ride is yet another in Dahl’s resume, and ranks as one of his best.  He better than most directors out there, realizes that the true nature of horror and terror comes from that which occurs around us every day.  Life is perched precariously, like a row of dominos, and by toppling the wrong one; it can all come crashing down.  In Joy Ride, Dahl takes a simple college prank, a semi truck, 4 teenagers, and a voice known only as Rusty Nail, and creates a movie that is impossible to take your eyes off of, and that will keep your pulse racing until its masterful resolution.  From beginning, to end, this is a near flawless example, like Halloween, The Hitcher, and Duel, of how life, without any enhancements, monsters or super-human killers, can be the most terrifying ride of all.

It starts so simply.  Lewis is a college student who decides to drive cross-country (from somewhere in the West, never really clarified) to his home in New Jersey.  Along the way, he will pick up two passengers, an expected one, his “friend” Venna (Sobieski) and an unexpected one (his ne’er do well brother Fuller (Zahn))  During the journey, Fuller and Lewis purchase a CB radio, and proceed to play a seemingly innocent prank on a voice known as “Rusty Nail”.  Needless to say, the prank goes horribly wrong, and the boys then become the unwitting pawns in a mechanized cat and mouse game.  Dahl constructs the scenes and pastes them together to near perfection, building nervous tension from volume levels on the radio, reflections pay phones, ringing telephones, and of course the ominous head lights of the imposing truck.  Unlike Jeepers Creepers, which started just as intense, but then fell to pieces at the end, Dahl makes each progressing sequence believable, the decisions and reactions of the characters realistic, and that impending sense of dread, present in the characters eyes and voices throughout.  He is truly relentless, and while we may curse and scream during the movie for a break, by the end, we are thankful we didn’t get one. The film borrows premises and principles from 2 films primarily, Spielberg’s Duel, and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher.  Dahl even borrows and modifies a scene from the master of this genre Sometimes, it’s not what a director puts in, but what he leaves out, hints at, and then moves on from, that make a film truly memorable.  but never going over the top, or dwelling in unnecessary plot points which could have easily been done with romantic hintings, and some side stories which are mentioned, but never dwelled upon.  Instead these add flavor and reality to the characters and the roles, and intensify the film, keeping adrenaline levels going, long after the credits have rolled.  I kept waiting for Dahl to slip up, to fall prey to the traps those other movies with gripping beginnings, and good ideas, but he never did.  He kept things real, balanced, consistent, intense, mysterious, scary and real, right up to, and through, the ending. 

Lending credence to the story is the perfect casting of each of the major roles.  Walker, who has in the past relied on his pretty boy looks, and over reactionary expressions, instead provides just the right level of emotion to the role of begrudging participant, turned victim.  Zahn, one of today’s most underrated actors, tones down the comic sarcasm and lets his innocent, carefree look and nature reflect the natural terror of seeing something blow up in your face.  Sobieski gets a bit less screen time, but is more than just another pretty face.  I appreciate that Dahl keeps an air of mystery around his tormentor, one of the many mistakes that doomed Jeepers Creepers, and that he keeps his victims reacting in ways, and to situations, that may seem incredulous or unbelievable at times.  I say to those detractors, that life does funny things sometimes, and the impossible becomes possible, when put into specific perspective and exposed to certain elements.  Basically, if it happens in the movies, it is possible in real life, because the movies are reflections of the director and writers interpretation of how they see things.

Ultimately, Joy Ride is a near perfect example of how suspense and horror movies should be made.  Somewhere along the way, horror film directors forgot what Hitchcock, and more recently John Carpenter (Halloween) taught us; that the things around us everyday can generate the most fear inside us, if given certain stimuli.  Reality is a scary thing, and nothing any filmmaker can do on screen can rival the fear that our own mind or imagination can conjure up when led or teased in a certain direction.  With Joy Ride, Dahl shows that you can take a simple story, even one that’s been done before, and by treating the audience with respect and intelligence, still scare the pants off of them.  If your knuckles aren’t white, and your heartbeat racing in double time after this one, then you need to be checked for a pulse at all. 

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