For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Semi-trucks are inherently scary. They’re sharks in a sea of sedans. Before director Steven Spielberg terrified audiences with a great white in Jaws, he made them afraid to hit the highway with an 18-wheeler in Duel.
Thirty years after Duel, Joy Ride joined the surprisingly fruitful subgenre of villainous vehicle movies. Before then, John Carpenter made us fear a Plymouth Fury with 1983’s Christine, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel. Three years later, King adapted his short story “Trucks” into Maximum Overdrive, a horror comedy in which big rigs spring to lethal life.
Joy Ride is closest in spirit to 1997’s Breakdown in the sense that it’s more grounded in reality, exploring how long-haul driving could lead to lunacy. You can imagine the villain of this 2001 film, trucker Rusty Nail, riding along with the murderous motorheads in Breakdown. Both films follow ordinary people as their lives collide with a mysterious truck driver. Truckers are mysterious, aren’t they? On the road, they tower over us behind tinted windows and we wonder what will set them off. Lack of sleep? Boredom? Bitterness?
Rusty Nail flies off the handle when two estranged brothers, Lewis (Paul Walker) and Fuller (Steve Zahn), prank him over a CB radio during a road-trip reunion. They prey upon his loneliness by setting him up on a fake date at a roadside motel. The name of the motel — the Lone Star — serves as a cruel reminder of Rusty’s solitude.
Let’s just say the trucker doesn’t take kindly to the joke. Instead, he takes his rage to the road, following the brothers even as Lewis’s girlfriend, Venna (Leelee Sobieski), joins them.
Like Spielberg did with Duel and Jaws, director John Dahl takes a less-is-more approach, leaving Rusty Nail largely unseen and focusing instead on his voice and the blood-red lights that flash on the CB radio when he speaks. Ted Levine’s voice is as gravelly as the roads on which Rusty Nail travels. He’s at once wickedly playful and earnestly enraged. He makes you feel the intensity of Rusty’s resentment toward Lewis and Fuller for teasing him with the promise of a connection amid the hopelessness of the highway. Their derision of truckers leads to their downfall.
Unlike other films in this genre, this one shows awareness of the real-world stereotypes that feed cinematic depictions of truckers. In a particularly amusing scene, Lewis and Fuller mistake a trucker’s tire thumper for a weapon. And when he tries to help them, they assume he’s up to something sinister.
With its pitch-black humor and surreal southwestern setting drenched in dread, Joy Ride feels like the spiritual sequel to Dahl’s sophomore effort, Red Rock West. Both films’ worlds are nearly desolate places in which you can’t trust anyone among the few drifters who occupy them. Across the vast ocean of desert, everything seems alien.
In the DVD commentary for Duel, Spielberg speaks about how that film taps into the fear of the unknown. We don’t know who’s behind the wheel of these metal death machines on the road. And who knows what could make them snap? That unsettling idea even creeped up onscreen this year with the road-rage thriller Unhinged.
Both Joy Ride and Unhinged deal with the dangers of social detachment and “out of sight, out of mind” attitudes. In Unhinged, a woman honks at the wrong guy in this social media age ripe for knee-jerk responses of retribution. Reflecting on it now, Joy Ride seemed to be warning us of that world with its CB radio, which Fuller refers to as “a prehistoric internet.” You wonder what kind of trouble he and Lewis could get into on Facebook and Twitter.
I first watched Joy Ride back in 2001 on a laptop during a family road trip. The semi-trucks swarming around us enhanced the suspense. Oddly enough, it went on to become a go-to road trip movie — a lean, 98-minute thriller to help pass the time. I’ve probably seen it about 98 times given my mom’s obsession with the film. I imagine she revisits it so often because it’s one of the rare horror films that really lets you hang out with the characters, thus making you feel for them when they plunge into a nightmarish situation. Walker, Zahn and Sobieski share an endearing chemistry. And with just his voice, Levine makes Rusty Nail an engaging bogeyman.
Funny, poignant and thrilling, Joy Ride lives up to its title. It won’t make you lose sleep, but it might have you checking your rear-view mirror when you’re on the road at night.