Friday, 30 September 2016

Joy Ride (4½ Stars)

This is the 11th film starring Leelee Sobieski, made in 2001 when she was 17. It was her first horror film, but not the last. She made a few, dotted through her career. She never specialised in any one genre. This is the first of two films in which she shared the lead role with Steve Zahn, the other being "Night Train" in 2009.

When I first watched this film in 2011 I gave it an average rating. That's probably the reason why I haven't watched it again until now. I'm not sure why I rated it so low. I judged it as a horror film. It's actually a mix of horror film and road movie, with a hint of love triangle thrown in for good measure. The love triangle aspect was played down in the final cut, as we see from the facts that the romantic scenes were cut and can only be found in the DVD's deleted scenes.

Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) and Venna Wilcox (Leelee Sobieski) went to school together in New Jersey. Venna was the hottest girl in the school and Lewis always had a crush on her, but she only dated the hottest guys. He managed to stay in her life as her best friend, but that was never enough for him. "Just friends" is a very sad thing to be when you want more.

Now they're both at university. Lewis is at the University of California in Berkley, while Venna is at the University of Colorado in Boulder. At the end of term Venna rings Lewis for a chat. Just friends. She mentions that she's broken up with her boyfriend. Lewis sees it as a chance and offers to pick her up and drive her home.

On the way to Boulder Lewis stops to phone his parents. The film takes place in 1999, the days when not many people had mobile phones, so he rings from a phone booth at a gas station. Cute. My mobile phone went dead in the town centre two days ago and I needed to phone the person who was picking me up. I searched everywhere for a phone booth and couldn't find one. But Lewis has no trouble finding a phone. His mother tells him that his older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) is due to be released from prison in Salt Lake City and asks if he can pick him up as well. Reluctantly, Lewis agrees. After all, it's his brother.

Fuller buys a cheap second hand CB funk radio, so that they can ask other drivers for advice about weather and speed traps, as well as engaging in small talk with other bored drivers. As I said, that was in 1999, the prehistoric days before mobile phones. How many of my readers are old enough to remember those days? They hear a trucker calling himself Rusty Nail giving advice on the weather. Fuller (calling himself Black Sheep) asks for more detailed information, but Rusty Nail doesn't reply. He suggests that his brother put on a female voice, calling himself Candy Cane, and ask again. Rusty Nail replies promptly. Men! Lewis flirts with Rusty Nail for a while before they stop at a motel. After meeting an obnoxious racist who's staying in the room next to theirs they contact Rusty Nail again, telling him he can meet Candy Cane at the motel, giving him the room number of the racist.

It goes badly. Rusty Nail attacks the racist and almost kills him by ripping his jaw off. The boys carry on with their journey, but Rusty Nail is stalking them. He knows that Candy Cane was speaking from the same CB radio as Black Sheep and follows them from the motel. He almost destroys their car, but  he lets them go and they think it's over. It's not. Rusty Nail follows the boys to Boulder, where they pick up Venna. Unknown to them, Rusty Nail kidnaps Venna's friend Charlotte (also from New Jersey), from whom he finds out all the personal details about the boys. Then the terror continues.

The film's atmosphere is made more horrific by keeping Rusty Nail anonymous. For most of the film we only hear his voice. In the few scenes where he's visible it's always dark, so we don't see him clearly. The film snapshot above is probably the best view we have of him. The actor isn't listed in the credits, but I'm sure that's a deliberate choice. Only the DVD's extra features tell us who he is. There are actually two different actors who play Rusty Nail. Matthew Kimbrough is the man pictured above, but for his voice the actor Ted Levine is used. This works well, because we never see Rusty Nail speaking. We either see him or we hear him, not both at the same time.

The film was written and produced by J. J. Abrams. He has a talent for writing good stories with original plots. It's not a pure horror story, but it's very good for what it is.

Here's an amusing little story told in the DVD extras. The film contains a scene in which the two brothers were forced to enter a restaurant naked, otherwise Charlotte would be killed. They had to strip in the back seat of the car. Leelee Sobieski was sitting in the car while this was filmed. She was too shy to look at them. She kept her head down. Even though the naked men were directly in front of her, she didn't see them until she watched the completed film. That little anecdote shows Leelee's attitude. It's somehow appealing that she was (and still is) so puritanical in her attitude towards nudity. She tries to excuse it by saying she respected Steve Zahn (on the left) and Paul Walker (on the right), but any other 17-year-old girl would at least have taken a little peek.

The film was a success at the box office and received praise from critics. That's an achievement in itself. It's not often that the critics and the paying public agree on anything. As a result, two sequels were made, in 2008 and 2014. Despite my curiosity I still haven't watched them. Both were released straight-to-video, and both received poor reviews from critics. Two things are mising from the sequels: J. J. Abrams and Leelee Sobieski. The first film relies on suspense, whereas according to the reviews the sequels rely on gore. They're described as torture porn, an expression I don't like to use, although I don't have a better way to sum up the genre.

Roger Ebert loved the film, heaping praise on Leelee Sobieski's performance. He had good taste. Click here to read his review.

The DVD is packed full of extras, including three feature commentaries. The first is by the director, John Dahl. The second is by J. J. Abrams and his co-writer Clay Tarver. Most excitingly, the third commentary is by Leelee Sobieski and Steve Zahn. It's essential listening for any Leelee Sobieski fan.

Paul Walker is best known for his role as Brian O'Connor in the Fast & Furious films. Unfortunately he died three years ago after his car hit a lamp post. He was sober at the time. The cause of the accident was speeding. He was driving at approximately 95 miles per hour in a road with a 45 mph speed limit. This was ironic, because in his films (including "Joy Ride") he frequently played a character who liked to drive faster than the speed limit. Driving fast isn't as safe in real life as it is in the films.

Paul Walker
September 12, 1973 – November 30, 2013

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