The saturation of advertising for the new Steve Zahn/Milla Jovovich/Timothy Olyphant thriller A Perfect Getaway (2009, up for release on today) encouraged me to reflect upon the career of Steve Zahn. Zahn has spent the past ten years in the role of the comedic sidekick, bringing moments of sparkling comic relief to That Thing You Do! (1996), Happy, Texas (1999), Saving Silverman (2001) and, one of my favorite movies of all time, Out of Sight (1998). Zahn is undoubtedly capable of dramatic range, as his amazing performance as a captive soldier in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn (2007) exemplified, but he seems to have become a victim of typecasting. While this can be interpreted as a disappointing waste of talent, Zahn can be so effective as comic relief that, in the case of John Dahl's Joy Ride (2001), he makes the movie.
The plot of Joy Ride, scripted by Clay Tarver and the man who has made geeks cool once again, J.J. Abrams ("Lost," Star Trek), builds on a conceit that seems cloned from Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971): a homicidal maniac in a big-rig stalks three protagonists as they make their way across the American west. In this version, Lewis (Paul Walker) and his down and out brother Fuller (Zahn) are headed from Salt Lake City to Boulder on a trip to pick up Venna (Leelee Sobieski), Lewis' childhood friend for whom he has kept a romantic flame burning. En route, Fuller has a CB radio installed to pass the time. With Lewis mimicking a woman's voice, the two brothers prank another truck driver, Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine), into believing he has a date with a female trucker known as Candy Cane. As you might have guessed, Rusty Nail isn't terribly happy when he realizes he's been punk'd. In fact, Nail becomes so enraged that he rips off the jawbone of a bystander and sets his rig on a collision course with Fuller, Lewis, and Venna.
Despite its similarities to Duel, the beauty of Joy Ride is that it is a generic hybrid: a comic-thriller. Of course, the bulk of the comedy is provided by Zahn, whose black sheep Fuller is given some best moments in the film. Take, for instance, a scene in which two drunken bar patrons are harassing Venna. Lewis, the chivalrous brother, believes the best method to disable the aggressive situation is to stand up to them. Fuller, a veteran of many a drunken brawl, approaches the confrontation a bit more pragmatically, simply taking her by the wrist and shouting, "Bitch, are you mouthing off again? I'm sorry man, it's just so hard to keep them in line now'a'days," getting the three of them out of the bar unscathed. The beauty of Abrams and Tarver's structure and Dahl's execution of it are that we're provided with a comedic scene, which serves as misdirection of tone, making the horror that much more potent when it does unexpectedly pop up.
This oscillation between comedy and terror is a quality that I find extremely rewarding in a thriller or horror film. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg utilized it nearly perfectly in Shaun of the Dead (2004). Hell, in most cases it's a technique that nearly always seems to pay off in spades (see, and I do mean see, Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell). I find it disappointing and somewhat insulting that so many filmmakers working in the horror genre today believe that blood, gore, or torture porn is the way to go. I admire some anatomically graphic horror films such as Neil Marshall's terrifying The Descent (2005), but Eli Roth and Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes remakes of Friday the 13th (2009) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) degrade both the spectator and the genre.
Of course, this technique wouldn't work if the film suffered from badly composed horror sequences. That, however, is not the case. In particular, I find the first encounter with Rusty Nail at the motel the most chilling. Rusty Nail arrives at the motel, hoping to find Candy Cane, and instead discovers an unsuspecting asshole that Fuller and Lewis have set up in the neighboring room. Dahl directs the scene entirely from Lewis and Fuller's point of view. We watch as the characters put their ears up against the wall, hoping to hear the confrontation, as Dahl places the horror onto the film's soundtrack. We struggle to hear the muffled exchange through the sound of the pouring rain and a ringing phone and, until the following morning, we remain uncertain of the consequences. Unfortunately, Fuller and Lewis did not suspect Rusty Nail's violent reaction to their prank, which didn't end well for their socially challenged neighbor.
Dahl relies on the film's soundtrack for the majority of the film's thrills. We never get a good look of Rusty Nail outside of his truck, which pushes us to imagine the worst when the only information we're given is Ted Levine's angry, raspy, voice. The bellowing of the truck's horn or Venna's screams, muffled by plastic wrap, are more emotionally and physically resonant than Marcus Nispel's tracking of the camera through a head wound in the Chainsaw Massacre remake. Now, I don't mean to imply that Joy Ride is a perfect film. The third-act jumps the shark in favor of conventionality when a character only alluded to becomes a bargaining chip. The ending ("it washes everything clean") still strikes me as a bit too convenient, bowing to executives hoping for a sequel rather than a rewarding conclusion. Finally, the chemistry between Leelee Sobieski and Paul Walker never seems to completely gel the way the brotherly love angle works between Walker and Zahn.
In the end, Joy Ride has one thing in common with director John Dahl's earlier films, particularly his superb neo-noirs Red Rock West (1992) and The Last Seduction (1994, featuring one of the genre's strongest femme fatales): it's premium pulp, on par with Tropicana orange juice. Admittedly, there are some plot missteps and not all the performers reign in their strongest performances. Yet, there's always Steve Zahn, making us laugh before we scream. Sounds like a great way to spend a Friday night to me!
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.