The 2001 film Joy Ride is an example of a subgenre of horror that I like to call the Don’t Fuck With Truckers genre. It all started with Duel back in the early 70s and since then, there’s been a large number movies about ordinary people who end up getting on the wrong side of a trucker.
Myself, I would never piss off a trucker. First off, I have a few cousins who are proud members of the Teamsters and I can tell you, from personal experience, that you don’t want to get on their bad side. Secondly, those trucks are really, really big and it takes a certain amount of skill to drive them, certainly more skill than it takes me to drive my little convertible. (Truckers can make turns in those gigantic trucks and somehow do it without crashing into a stop light. I can barely parallel park.) Trucks block out the road, making it impossible to see anything beyond them, which makes the prospect of trying to pass them all the more frightening. Essentially, if you get into a vehicle fight with a trucker, you’re going to die. There’s just no way your little car is going to be able to beat that giant truck.
Now, I have to admit that I really like Joyride but sometimes, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t. It basically comes down to two things:
Number one, I have always defended horror movies against the charge that they always feature people making the stupidest possible decisions. My defense is usually that people in real life are actually far more stupid than they realize and that whenever anyone says, “I would never be stupid enough to wander around a deserted camp ground in the middle of the night!,” they are essentially lying. Seriously, everyone would do that just so they could later joke about how it was just like being in a horror movie.
That said, the majority of the characters in Joy Ride are really, really dumb. Basically, two brothers (Steven Zahn and Paul Walker) are driving from California to Colorado so that they can pick up Walker’s best friend (Leelee Sobieski). Along the way, Zahn and Walker decide to have some fun by getting on the CB radio and telling a trucker who calls himself Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine, who was also the killer in The Silence of the Lambs) that there is a prostitute named Candy Cane waiting for him in a motel room. The joke, of course, is that Zahn and Walker know that an obnoxious businessman is actually staying in the room.
The next morning, after playing their little joke and then listening to Rusty Nail and the businessman have a huge fight, the brothers are informed that the businessman has been found on the side of the road. He’s still alive but his jaw was ripped off. The brothers’ reaction is to get the Hell out of town.
Okay, so far, so good. The joke was mean but people are mean. Leaving town instead of helping with the police investigation was selfish but people are selfish. What drives me crazy is that, once they’re on the road, the brothers get back on the CB radio and inform Rusty Nail that there was no Candy Cane and that they were just playing a joke on him.
IDIOTS! Seriously, you’ve just been told that the guy ripped off another man’s jaw and now you’re going to piss him off more?
My other problem is that Leelee Sobieski’s character is so underdeveloped. The film’s nearly halfway over before Zahn and Walker reach Colorado and pick her up. Just a few scenes later, Sobieski is kidnapped by Rusty Nail. Characterwise, she pretty much only exists to be kidnapped and held hostage. It seems like a waste of Sobieski’s talents and the flatness of her character is especially disappointing when you consider how well-developed the characters played by Walker and Zahn are.
And yet, despite all of that, I really like Joy Ride. It’s just a well-made film, a relentless thrill ride that succeeds largely because director John Dahl never gives the audience any time to relax and think about whether or not the film makes any sense. As a largely unseen threat, Rusty Nail is both plausible and seemingly supernatural at the same time. I mean, that truck literally pops up out of nowhere sometimes. Zahn and Walker are very well-cast as brothers, with Zahn’s natural goofiness nicely paired up with Walker’s natural earnestness. You like them, even if they are selfish idiots.
Almost despite itself, Joy Ride is a good movie and it features an important message: Don’t fuck with truckers.