Joy Ride was widely released in 2001. I was 18 years old when I saw it. At the time it represented the fun, thrilling, scary adventure it was meant to be. It had pretty faces, a chilling villain, and a fantastic story about “going too far.” I remember vividly cheering at the screen and looking for the DVD everywhere. I was enthralled by the film and saw it many times that year.
It is a near impeccable thriller, one that hits almost all its marks, stepping on the proverbial gas pretty early to turn our knuckles white. While Jaws made us afraid of swimming in the ocean, films like Joy Ride, and its undeniable inspiration Duel, made us afraid of roads and its randomness. The sea is unpredictable and full of strange creatures, but open roads prove just as scary. Joy Ride shows this, and depicts a horrific realization of fear based on something tangible, not just paranoia of likable characters.
As a young man, I felt instantly I was part of the film’s party. The story starts as Lewis (Paul Walker), a young college boy, begins a trip to pick up a girl (Leelee Sobieski) he likes. He uses a plane ticket refund to buy an old car so he can pick her up on the way home. However, he decides to make a stop. In Salt Lake City, his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) is imprisoned. Lewis decides to bail him out so he can continue. Fuller tags along and Lewis has no choice but to include his brother in the trip. This is not a problem. He’s only thinking of his destination.
At a rest stop, Fuller decides to buy a CB radio and has it installed in his brother’s car. His intentions are to communicate with other travelers to see if there are speedometers in the area so they can hurry. He also wants to have fun with this old radio, and starts pranking people on the radio. This is classic Fuller. In the hands of a fantastic Zahn, the character is just inevitably funny and likable.
A deep, rusty voice speaks. The brothers decide to speak to this man using a woman’s voice. This is how Rusty Nail (voiced by an uncredited Ted Levine and portrayed uncredited by Matthew Kimbrough) and Candy Cane start a conversation. One that quickly turns into a full on harmless prank. After all, there are no laws that say you can’t make impressions right? Using the Candy Cane voice, Lewis starts throwing lustful remarks to the man in the radio but the game ends suddenly due to a malfunction.
When the boys decide to stop at a motel, Fuller encounters a hateful man in the lobby, a racist and angry man who’s upset because he just wants to rest and people keep knocking on his room offering towels. Avoiding conflict, Fuller backs off and just gets the room. In the car, Rusty Nail appears on the radio again. The boys decide to take it to the next level: they tell Rusty Nail that Candy Cane is in a motel waiting for him. The room? You guessed it: The one where the upset man is staying in.
At this point, Lewis sets a balance in the relationship. He thinks. He assesses the situation and realizes they may be taking it too far. When they’re in their room and they hear Rusty Nail actually came, his face shows extreme anxiety. His expression is silent and yet he allows us to understand they never should have done this. As strange sounds emerge from the room, their fear increases. Rusty Nail is an innocent player in their sick consideration of a joke. They know he’s hurt.
Lewis calls the front desk and lets them know of the strange noises. The night clerk calls the room, and afterwards lets Lewis know everything is all right. The angry guy is in charge. Rusty Nail is nowhere to be heard. Absolute silence among the rainstorm. The joke is over.
Joy Ride is one of those films parents could use to teach youngsters that sometimes you have to stop. At least I imagined my mom shaking her head as Fuller did his thing, and nodding as Lewis recognized they were wrong. The film’s first act consists on a change of mind that feels relevant today, twenty years after I saw it for the first time. When I saw the next scene, I swallowed popcorn and got nauseous instantly. I felt nervous at my own fascination of a stunt that, at first seemed cool, and then turned into a cave that held monstrous possibilities. It’s a scene that swiftly changes the tone of Joy Ride. From a fun adventure led by siblings, to a dark descent into uncertainty.
Lewis and Fuller wake up early on a sunny day. The storm has passed. When Lewis is brushing his teeth, he realizes Fuller is making a statement to a cop. He runs out and tries to help Fuller. Anything he says may be held against them, whatever they are talking about. They soon realize they had it all wrong. A man was found on the road. Lying face down. He’s not dead but comatose. However, this man is not Rusty Nail. The victim is the angry, gigantic man Fuller had a squabble with in the reception. Lewis asks what happened to him and the cop sarcastically says “it wasn’t comely”. They don’t admit their involvement when the agent asks them if they know something about the perpetrator. Office Akins decides the boys need to refresh their memory.
In the slow motion scene that follows, consider Fuller’s face as he walks towards the glass of the hospital room holding the victim. He stares in terror as his eyes define what he’s looking at. At the other end of his stare, there is unimaginable violence. He can’t even blink as he stares into darkness itself. The agent describes the horrible act that caused the damage. Lewis can’t look. But Fuller is still there, observing the consequence of his act. Innocence is broken. Even as a grown man, he conserved a level of funny ingenuity that’s completely erased in the seconds of dread. His jaw is frozen. His mouth agape at amazement. In a hospital bed, there lies a man with no visible structure of a jaw. His mouth was opened to the point of destruction. His jaw was ripped off. Fuller keeps staring. This is Zahn’s best performance of his whole career.
The scene only lasts 30 seconds. And 30 seconds are enough for Joy Ride to make a precise statement about the weight of a counterpart we haven’t even met. Rusty Nail’s presence is not linked to a certain personality. We’ve only known his voice and his awkward attitude when making conversation through a radio. It’s through the nature of his acts that we uncover his array of hostility and spite. The film then becomes a constant development of the prey factor. Those guys will never stand a chance.
Twenty years ago, the film shook us to the core. Critics praised it, and it was actually an introductory delivery for J.J. Abrams who co-wrote the film. Theater-goers then witnessed an intelligent film with a last scene that is masterful in execution and risky (those of you who know how the film ends, understand what I mean). In the DVD, we were able to see five alternate endings to the one released in cinemas. None of them worked better than the one we saw first. The reason? There’s nothing scarier than randomness. And Rusty Nail is one of those dramatic expressions whose shape is unknown. We only have a voice to remember him with. That and a horrific act of violence that Fuller and Lewis saw firsthand during an unexpected stop in their road trip. That road trip was full of dreams at first. You could almost sense it. After that scene, all sorts of evil come to mind. Dreams are shattered in just a matter of seconds. And as Fuller realizes when he’s staring at a dying man, there’s no one to blame but himself.