Tribute to Paul Walker 1973-2013: A Retrospect Review of Joy Ride (2001)

Following the devastating news of actor Paul Walker’s tragic and sudden death that has shocked and saddened the world in recent days, Hayley’s Horror Reviews takes a look back at genre film Joy Ride (2001) in tribute. The film was released hot on the heels of Walker’s breakthrough role as Brian O’Connor in the well-known action/thriller The Fast and the Furious (2001) which since spurned a popular franchise. Joy Ride (A.K.A Roadkill) on the other hand is a straight up road movie/thriller, with elements of the slasher film in place however due to the lack of gore and little body count it can’t quite be fully associated with the sub-genre. By all means Joy Ride isn’t a perfect film, and requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, there is plenty of likeable elements about it as it provides an edge-of-the-seat thrill ride, filled with suspenseful moments that is sure to keep the audiences attention for its 97 minute run time. This review will contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film, go check it out and then come back here.

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Paul Walker takes the lead role of Lewis Thomas in the movie, a Californian University student at the tail-end of his freshman year. While planning for the summer ahead, he arranges to drive to Boulder, Colorado to collect his childhood friend and possible romantic interest Venna (Leelee Sobieski) before heading home. His plans become slightly altered when his mother gets in touch to inform him of his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) release from prison and requests he picks him up much to Lewis’s annoyance. Lewis and Fuller hit the road and the tension mounts between them as the two brothers don’t quite see eye to eye. In order to break the ice and make their road trip more bearable, Fuller purchases a CB radio. Fuller goads Lewis into playing a few pranks on random truckers they come into contact with over the radio. They catch the attention of one in particular that goes by the alias of “Rusty Nail”, Fuller encourages Lewis to put on a female voice under the name “Candy Cane” in a ploy to fool “Rusty Nail” which works successfully. Interference quickly puts a stop to their joke and the two travel on down the winding roads before stopping at a tacky motel for the evening. Fuller encounters an arrogant, racist businessman at the motel reception who’s also staying the night and decides to get his own back. The boys are in luck as “Rusty Nail” manages to contact them via the radio, Lewis sets up a false meeting with “Rusty Nail”, inviting him to room 17, which the businessman occupies for the night and request that he brings a bottle of pink champagne.

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Under the impression they planned a harmless joke. Lewis and Fuller get more than they bargained for when “Rusty Nail” turns up at the motel and aggressively attacks the oblivious businessman. This scene in particular is set up well. The camera remains with Lewis and Fuller in room 18 with only muffled sound from the next room to indicate what is happening. Its an example of how director John Dahl creates a sense of suspense and intensity for what’s to come. The following morning, the police arrive to question the two after discovering the businessman with his jaw completely ripped off. Understandably this frightens the brothers as they process the severity of their childish prank.

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The terror doesn’t end there, “Rusty Nail” is humiliated and hell bent on giving the boys a taste of their own medicine and will stop at no lengths! Lewis and Fuller take to the road once more and encounter some more spine-tingling red-herrings that are sure to leave some goosebumps. Following police questioning, they are contacted over the radio by their menacing stalker who is still searching for “Candy Cane”, idiotically Fuller gets mouthy with “Rusty Nail”, deeming him a “sick f***”, while Lewis admits that he was in fact “Candy Cane”. When they refuse to apologize, they make matters far worse for themselves.

There’s a scene where the two are chased by “Rusty Nail”, they are low on fuel and manage to “lose” him at a gas station. While Lewis attempts to make a discreet call to the police via the payphone, Fuller fills up the car. They are soon startled when an ominous looking truck reading “Ice” also stops next to them. They see a man holding what looks like a weapon. Making a swift exit, they are chased by the same vehicle. In a sheer state of fear and panic, they are relieved to discover the man from the gas station only followed them to return Lewis’s credit card that he carelessly left behind. Again, Dahl has used some clever techniques guaranteed to get the blood-pumping, as the viewer is intended to root for Lewis and Fuller. “Rusty Nail” does in fact catch up with them, crashing through the ice truck. In a nail-biting chase sequence, they reach a dead end, “Rusty Nail” drives his truck into their car and begins to turn it on its side. Under immense pressure they panic and apologize. “Rusty Nail” accepts it and admits he was just screwing with them and drives away.

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Finally, the two reach Colorado and collect Venna from University, they are briefly introduced to her friend Charlotte (Jessica Bowman). The three of them set off on a road trip and once again stop for the night at another motel. This is the part where the film leads us into a false sense of security. Temporarily the film touches on a potential love triangle between Venna, Lewis and Fuller which doesn’t get fully fleshed out. Allegedly Leelee Sobieski filmed two sequences, one with Walker and another with Zahn, which explains why this part of the story doesn’t feel developed enough and the fact she seems attracted to both of them. As they head to bed for the night, Lewis is abruptly woken by a phone call from “Rusty Nail”. Their terror is far from over yet as he now knows they have a girl with him and refers to her as “Candy Cane”. The stakes are raised even further as not only do the brothers have to protect themselves but Venna’s life is also in their hands.

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“Rusty Nail” calls all the shots as the third act depicts him humiliating and terrorizing the trio even further. He’s also captured Charlotte which at this point is going beyond measures of plausibility. Following a chase through a corn field, “Rusty Nail” captures Venna and makes the brothers play by his rules. Fuller and Lewis must find the motel he’s taken her to by midnight or he carries out his threats of death.

In a frantic search through several empty room 17’s at different motels, they split up and Fuller sees Venna, bound and gagged from the alleyway. On the other side, a shotgun is strapped to the door and if opened, Venna’s jaw will be shot clean off. “Rusty Nail” viciously attacks Fuller and for a moment, he seems like a goner. However heroic Lewis and the police manage to get there in the nick of time as “Rusty Nail” crashes through the motel room and is presumed dead.

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After a rollercoaster ride of thrills and chills, the ending is somewhat anti-climactic. The survivors, Lewis, Fuller and Venna overhear “Rusty Nail” over the police radio to demonstrate he has not been defeated which comes off as a bit weak. Alternate endings were filmed including a scene where “Rusty Nail” is arrested and another where he is beaten by the brothers. Preferably either of these endings would have worked rather than the final outcome. Joy Ride isn’t without its flaws. As previously stated it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief in regards to how “Rusty Nail” knows exactly where they are, who they’re with and at what point in time, but regardless its still immensely entertaining. There were plenty of aspects that seemed underdeveloped and “Rusty Nail”‘s motive does come across as contrived at times. It would have perhaps been more interesting to find out some backstory at the film’s conclusion, without giving too much away. JJ Abrams stated his script took influence from Steven Spielberg’s Duel, however it also feels very similar to The Hitcher (1986) and it could be suggested that Joy Ride is an updated version of that film prior to the release of the 2007 remake, it’s just my theory.

Joy Ride was well-received by critics and rightly so, Roger Ebert gave the film a thumbs up and it has an overall rating of 74% on rotten tomatoes. Paul Walker displayed strong, leading man qualities which set him up for future roles in his career. Steve Zahn gives an equally good performance as Fuller and the chemistry and tension between the two is believable, Zahn brings in a lot of humor to his role. Both characters remain productive throughout and fight everything that comes their way. JJ Abrams writing is good on the most part and is definitely aware of all the techniques that creates a sense of suspense and intensity. The decision not to feature “Rusty Nail” physically until the end, makes his presence even scarier, as that sense of anonymity suggests the characters and we as an audience don’t know who we’re dealing with. Ted Levine provides a fantastic performance with his deep, sinister voice. Levine was well-known for his terrific performance in Silence of the Lambs (1991) as Buffalo Bill. Joy Ride’s other strength is the fact that it doesn’t need to rely on barely any gore to bring about the scare factor, it’s created psychologically and at a time where post-Scream teen slashers were emerging left right and centre with high body counts, Joy Ride strays from doing so.

Joy Ride is an underrated genre film that is worth checking out especially if psychological thrillers/road movies and slashers hold some appeal. It’s definitely worth seeing for Paul Walker’s performance and a good example of some of his earlier film work.

RIP Paul Walker. Gone too soon.

Hayley Alice Roberts.

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