Joy Ride is the type of thriller you want to see if you want to be scared. It lives up to its “thriller” genre title by having a filmmaker who knows how to build suspense and tension. It has been directed by John Dahl, and he understands that often waiting on something to happen is scarier than the actual event. As a result, a lot of Joy Ride is build-up, both with the suspense and the character. It works because of that. This is one of the good ones.
A complex plot would hurt a film like this one. Instead, the narrative is simple. Lewis (Paul Walker) is longtime friends with Venna (Leelee Sobieski), and they are both in college. Different colleges, to be precise. It’s vacation time, and Lewis offers to drive them home on a nice road trip. He doesn’t even have a car. He decides to buy an old one for somewhere around $1,000 and get going. Before leaving, he talks with his mother and learns that his brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), is in a city on the way, having been arrested on drunk charges. He decides to bail out his brother and have a three-person road trip.
At one stop, Fuller has a mechanic install a CB radio because he wants to talk to truckers while on the road. Fuller then convinces his brother to impersonate a woman and trick one trucker (voice of Ted Levine) into believing that there might be a romantic shot between them, even though no such woman exists. Lewis even convinces the trucker to come to a motel room, one that he’s not even in. The trucker, codenamed Rusty Nail, winds up almost killing the man who was in the motel room.
This is all before the boys even pick up Venna. The trucker continues harassing them on the radio, and he seems to know who they are and where they are at all times. He wants an apology; the two boys, cocky as they are, refuse to give it. After a thrilling series of events, he gets it and everyone goes on their way. Venna is picked up, the boys have learned their lesson — don’t prank people — and it seems like everyone can go on their merry way.
But now there is a girl, and Rusty Nail wants her. It turns out that he continued to follow the boys after picking up Venna. Now he thinks that they lied to him about there being a female, as now there is one. He’s mad, he’s coming to get them, and there’s nothing that a Chrysler Newport is going to do against a giant semi. What’s going to happen? A lot, actually. Joy Ride only runs for slightly over 90 minutes, and about half of that is suspense building, but it feels like a great deal is packed into that short period of time.
Eventually, Joy Ride becomes a series of high-tension scenes in which a truck chases characters while an ominous voice of an unseen man gives directions and threats. We don’t really ever get a clear look at the villain of the film, and that makes him more threatening. We only see his semi, and they all look the same. Any truck approaching in the background could spell doom. And given that we’re on a highway for much of the picture, there are a lot of trucks going in each direction at any given time.
All of the dead time earlier in the film doesn’t allow us to prepare for a relentless series of chases and other tense moments later on. The pace gets quicker, the editing more rapid, and it unnerves us. And that’s completely ignoring the action on-screen; simple filmmaking techniques allow for this. Couple that with deeper-than-the-genre-requires characters and scenes that are suspenseful almost regardless of the way they’re crafted or built up, and you’ve got the makings of a good thriller.
Yes, Joy Ride is preposterous, but it does a decent enough job explaining how Rusty Nail could track them even without being seen. You still might want to get into a mindset where you’re not thinking too hard about how everything works and instead appreciate the way the film builds suspense and how it manages to generate scene after scene of tension. Even when it becomes something centered more on adrenaline than scares, it’s still far more effective than you might expect it to be. It’ll raise the heart rate.
Joy Ride is being billed as a three-actor thriller, although that’s not entirely fair as Leelee Sobieski isn’t actually in it that much. Mostly, it’s straight-faced Paul Walker, who has a nice, everyman quality which works well here, and the aloof, comedic relief Steve Zahn. Oh, and the voice of Ted Levine, which could have broken the film had it not been up to snuff. We don’t see his characters, so the voice is crucial. Thankfully, it’s Ted Levine, so we’re in good hands. Or, maybe, vocal chords?
Joy Ride might not be the smartest thriller out there but as an adrenaline rush of a good time, it does more than a good job. It uses film form to generate suspense and tension, its plot is basic and allows for a good number of scenes designed to make your heart race, and Ted Levine has a great voice for the villain, whom we never see. It might be too unbelievable for some, but if you’re on-board with the premise and promise not to over think it — you don’t really have time to during the film, given its later relentless pace — you’re going to have a good time.