You could drive a '71 Newport, if not a 16-wheeler, through the holes in the plot of Joy Ride, John Dahl's road-movie neo-noir horror film. Then again, if you can still stand this sort of thing, there's no reason that you shouldn't. Of its type, it's fine; its type, though, is the schlocky Hollywood thriller, with ample gore and multiple crashes, that provides the mindless, visceral pleasures of a mediocre carnival ride or a decent video game. There's little point in tracing the contrivances of the premise. They're irrelevant because the film is all too aware of them, or at least pretends to be. What may be relevant, still, in a film like this, is what it's not aware of, its unconscious dimension. In a time when the schlockiest movies claim a high degree of self-consciousness, that dimension becomes more significant than ever.
So what, then, is the film not aware of? Almost everything. Some viewers will be reminded of Matthew Shepard as they watch this movie, but that association is not one the film gives any real evidence of prompting. Others may think of what the filmmakers could not have foreseen: the events of Sept. 11. Our recent horrific past lay in the future of this movie's grim imagining, and the future, whatever else it may be, is everyone's Unconscious. That doesn't mean the film's horrors should not be answerable to the histories it is, like the rest of us, stuck in.
So what are these horrors? On the face of it, they boil down to the fear of a single figure--an avenging, maniacal, relentlessly resourceful truck driver. In the film, Paul Walker plays Lewis, a student at Berkeley, who decides on a lark to cash in his refundable (now there's a stretch) airline ticket and drive home, cross-country, in that `71 Newport, to New Jersey, picking up along the way his delinquent brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) and his would-be girlfriend Venna (Leelee Sobieski, lying low in her second schlock-fest in one month). Fuller, a likable rogue, buys a CB radio for the Newport. He then goads Lewis into mimicking the voice of a woman over the airwaves, to play a prank on a lonely trucker who's looking for love--it takes a cliché to know a cliché--in all the wrong places.
The trucker does not take kindly to the joke. For the rest of the movie, he stalks the trio relentlessly, using methods that seem supernatural but can mimic the natural--about as well as Paul Walker does a woman's voice--only because they need never be explained. It's not that the trucker has no sense of humor; in keeping with the trends of modern horror, his Grand Guignol sadism is the joke. Playing their initial prank, the boys want revenge on the trucker because he is lonely, and therefore pathetic; turning the tables, the trucker seeks revenge on them because they think they're innocent. It's a real American story, all right.
The teen-prank-out-of-control movie goes back at least to 1965 and William Castle's unsung but wildly influential I Saw What You Did. That movie concerns a pair of babysitters who, bored with the rigors of childcare, make random crank calls, rasping into the phone in stylized horror-show voices--self-conscious even then--"I know who you are, and I saw what you did!" They happen to dial a psycho fresh from murder (with Joan Crawford in her breathless high-camp phase as the victim), who then, convinced that they witnessed his crime, tracks them down. A shared, collective guilt--the one that the prank invokes, and depends on--turns into an individual, personal one, the killer's. Though the general guilt is everywhere, according to such movies, it's the personal one we're supposed to be scared of.
That's true of Joy Ride, too, but the novelty, for what it's worth, is that the personal guilt that motivates the trucker's rage seems, at first, inexplicable. In fact, the trucker--like the monster in Jeepers Creepers--is interesting chiefly as an effort to represent a kind of generic Evil. The Hollywood monsters of the '30s were "foreign" (Dracula, Frankenstein); those of the '50s nuclear (Them) or Communist (Invasion of the Body Snatchers); the monsters of the '60s were boys-next-door (Psycho) or All in the Family (Rosemary's Baby); and more recently, in movies like Silence of the Lambs, the figure of the deranged Vietnam vet served as a handy force from the collective id. Though Jeepers Creepers gestures wanly in that direction, too, it works hard to empty its monster of any real socio-cultural significance, and Joy Ride follows suit. These movies are too self-conscious not to know that the monster's profile expresses a movie's unconscious, so--eager not to express it--they try to evacuate their monsters, to create demons who scare but don't demonize, who don't constitute the usual projected, displaced images of despised populations.
It's not easy. This trucker is unmistakably all-American, but his voice, filtered through that anachronistic CB radio, has the timbre and the resonance of the voice of Satan (or, at least, Mercedes McCambridge). He's a redneck, and the film testifies that, even in such sensitive times, rednecks can still be counted on for a scare. Paradoxically, he's also pretty sensitive himself. In the film's least schematic scene, a teary Leelee Sobieski elicits true confessions from the trucker, who owns up to his feelings of shame and humiliation after the prank. Oprah would be proud.
Like most of these movies, this one takes evil for granted. It does not meditate on its causes, nor seriously consider its effects. Nobody, of course, expects it to do so, at its conscious levels. What's striking, here, is how much credence the film gives the trucker's humiliation. His anger is called forth by his being lured into sexual desire by another man, and that seems to account for the supernal force of his rage. The movie doesn't ask us to identify with that rage, but it relies entirely on the audience's charged reaction to its causes for whatever slight emotional logic the movie may have.
Paul Walker has an angular, seraphic face with a sudden, boyishly disarming smile and bright, glassy eyes that glint with a slight dissatisfaction, like the onset of a yearning he fears he won't understand. He looks like the offspring--angelic, not demonic--of a mating between Rob Lowe and Brad Pitt, but in his previous films, like The Skulls and The Fast and the Furious, his beauty was meant to signify a slick, narcissistic amorality, like Ryan Phillippe's in Cruel Intentions--a role Walker could have played--and every bit as blank and venal. Here, so eager to please at first that he has a puppy's bouncy amity, he's asked to play asexual, and the result is a very direct effect of repression. What's repressed, as we know, always returns, especially in horror movies. Late in the film, when the boys try to placate the remorseless trucker by screaming again and again, "We'll do whatever you want!"--we can only imagine what they think that might be. Earlier, though, the scenes in which Walker tries to turn the trucker on with his voice are charged with a perverse, non-carnal, obtuse sensuality that seems weirdly, evocatively contemporary.
Yet the pranksters seem to be living in a time warp, though they view the CB radio as an old-fashioned version of the Internet. Fuller, egging Lewis on to seduce the trucker while chastising him as a "drama queen," refers mysteriously to Lewis' extensive chat-room experience. In his innocence, when the trucker grows hostile, Lewis thinks he can get off the hook just by coming clean: "But I'm a guy!" he protests. "Nobody's perfect," as Joe E. Brown responded to the very same revelation at the end of Some Like it Hot. But this trucker lacks Joe E. Brown's equanimity, and it's assumed we'll understand the extremity of his reaction, or at least accept it as a plot device. It may even be that we're meant to see that the trucker knows all along his radio paramour is another man, and wants it that way. On its mostly unruffled surface, though, Joy Ride is a gender-bender for straight people; nobody cross-dresses, but every plot turn is awash in homosexual panic.
In that regard Joy Ride is exemplary as a turn-of-the-century neo-noir, as it is in relocating its noir-ish phantasms from the nightmare city to the neon country, with shades of Blood Simple, U-Turn, or Red Rock West, Dahl's first movie. Dahl brings some precision to the job--there's one great shot where the brothers, listening to a fight in an adjacent hotel room, stand on either side of an American-gothic painting, and as we listen to the muffled noise from the next room, the camera zooms slowly in to the painting. Mostly, though, Dahl just rechannels the energies of traditional noir by playing nascent homoeroticism against straightforward homophobia.
This much he's probably aware of; but can it be an accident that the creepiest scenes in this movie about murderous revenge motivated by homosexual panic (a common and frequently successful legal defense in such cases) are set in the wilds just outside Laramie, Wyo.? Or that a character in the film is crucified on a fence? Or that Walker's delicate beauty makes him fair game for a group of rednecks in a country-western bar? These scenes have a ghastly undercurrent, and it's not just because Dahl knows how to mine the arid vacancy of landscapes of the American West.
Movies, which so often find refuge in the drama of the individual, can't help conjuring the imagery of the collective, and it's no accident, surely, that this movie features more than the usual array of sensational crashes, startlingly violent, jarringly vacuous. If Joy Ride is a hit--and it's almost certain to be--it will be a sure sign that, from a state of collective pain, we are returning once more to normal. The reassurance offered by that circumstance, however, will be even slighter than the film itself.