Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: J is for Joy Ride (2001)

Having known each other since they were kids, Lewis Thomas (Walker) has held a secret crush on his oldest friend Venna Wilcox for over a decade. Unable to express his true feelings for her properly, and now separated by some distance -- he goes to college in California while she studies in Colorado, they remain close friends over the phone. And with the holiday break fast approaching, Lewis spontaneously hits upon a plan, cashes in his plane ticket to Connecticut and buys an old 1970s era Chrysler Newport with a busted taillight, and then offers to swing by and pick up Venna and give her a lift home, too, giving himself a couple thousand miles to finally muster the courage and admit how much he really feels about her to a captive and hopefully receptive audience.

On the road, Lewis calls home to inform his folks of this change in plans. Here, he learns his older brother (and constant screw-up) Fuller has been arrested, again, in Salt Lake City. And so, when his father refuses to bail him out, Lewis makes an unscheduled stop and springs Fuller, who decides to tag along. To make up for this delay, at the next gas station, Fuller (Zahn) talks Lewis into buying a CB radio via his usual modus operandi of doing something first and then asking, which he then uses as an impromptu fuzz-buster, monitoring trucker chatter or coaxing information about the location of any speed traps ahead. 

Never one not to stir the pot, Fuller soon starts pushing further, messing with a certain semi-driver who goes by the handle Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine), coaxing Lewis into posing as a lady trucker named Candy Kane. Together, they string this aroused but socially awkward rube along over the airwaves for a spell but he’s soon out of range, his last ominous transmission on what he’d really like to do to Candy Kane garbled and lost; the Thomas brothers can only shrug, and that, for the moment, is the end of that -- he typed ominously.

Stopping at a motel for the night, Fuller has a run-in with a belligerent, racist jerk of a salesman at the front desk while trying to check in. Back in the car, the CB crackles to life and Rusty Nail comes back on, insistently calling for Candy Kane. And while Lewis wants to leave well enough alone, once more, Fuller bullies him into participating in another practical joke; and so, as Candy Kane, he invites Rusty Nail to meet him/her at the same motel at midnight, and to bring a bottle of pink champagne, but gives him the room number of the hostile salesman, who is in the room right next to theirs. When midnight rolls around and Rusty Nail actually shows up, the brothers watch and then silently listen through the wall for the expected chaos next door; but instead, they hear a brief exchange, an even briefer struggle, and then, dead silence. No one seems to be laughing as they quickly rush to lock the door.

The next morning, the Thomases are rousted by the authorities; seems that salesman was found up the road a piece in the median, half dead, with his lower jaw ripped-off. The local sheriff suspects our boys were involved and while Fuller denies this Lewis caves and spills the whole story. And after a severe tongue-lashing, the two are ordered to be out of Utah by sundown. Back on the road, Rusty Nail is still on the air, looking for Candy Kane. A freaked-out Lewis reaches out and admits it was all just a bad joke and he was the girl all along; but when Rusty Nail demands an apology, Fuller takes over and tells this psycho what he can do with himself. And after a pregnant pause, Rusty Nail comes back with some friendly advice -- on how they should really get that taillight fixed, meaning he knows who they really are and is most probably right behind them...

Clay Carver broke into showbiz with his college buddy, Donal Logue, writing and producing the Jimmy the Cab Driver bumpers that appeared on MTV in the early 1990s, where the greasy looking and bespectacled and motor-mouthed Jimmy (Logue) riffed on popular videos of the day to his terrified passengers. And it was while developing a possible feature film adaptation of the highly excitable and hygienically challenged character when Carver crossed paths with J.J. Abrams, back when he was just Jeffrey Abrams, scripting things like Regarding Henry (1991), Forever Young (1992), and that living stink-bomb of a comedy, Gone Fishin’ (1997). And while Jimmy the Cab Driver: The Movie went nowhere, these two hit it off and decided to collaborate on a horror movie, something different, to try and save the genre from the glut of post-Scream (1996) self-referential slashers.

Taking the germ of an idea that anonymity breeds irresponsibility, especially at the dawn of the internet age, which gave everyone the means to hide their identity and behave abhorrently online with little to no repercussions, the main crux of the film was, What would happen if some merry pranksters’ joke backfired, people got hurt, even killed, and the butt of the joke finds out who you really are and decides to return the favor? (In the finished film, Fuller even refers to the Citizen’s Band as a prehistoric internet.) 

They then combined this notion of culpability with a couple of their favorite films, most notably Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), where a psychotic truck driver culls and tries to kill another motorist, and Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986), where a seemingly supernatural killer haunts some poor schmuck who gave him a ride and had the temerity to survive the encounter, and set their morality play on the open road, hoping to capture that same open-air isolation, relentlessness, and relatable characters in over their heads. (The film also bears some similar traits with an old William Castle flick, I Saw What You Did, where a couple of young girls phone prank the wrong person and are hunted down by a killer.) The two kicked the idea around for nearly four years before pitching it to Fox, who took the bait.

Originally, Abrams was going to direct Joy Ride (2001), originally written as Squelch, but it took so long to finalize the script he was now up to his knees in Felicity and Alias; and so, he turned that chore over to John Dahl. Dahl had caught the attention of Francis Ford Coppola with his debut film, Kill Me Again (1989); so much so he talked his nephew, Nicolas Cage, into starring in Dahl’s follow-up feature, the brilliant neo-noir, Red Rock West (1993), which he followed up with the not quite as brilliant but still pretty good thriller, The Last Seduction (1994). Dahl brought the same keen eye and hard-boiled sensibilities to this project, throttling the audience with one high tension set-piece after another, but also injected a ton of gallows humor to let people occasionally catch their collective breath as he stitched together a tight and exciting thriller.

Yeah, Dahl has this thing firing on all eight cylinders from the get go and then manages to successfully navigate around several looming and very large plot-holes, speeding by them so fast and so skillfully that even though the audience might notice them -- and it's hard not to, they simply won’t care as Rusty Nail draws a bead on Lewis and Fuller. And after an incident at an isolated gas station, where the paranoid pair wrongly assume a burly ice truck driver is Rusty Nail, the real culprit shows up, destroying the other vehicle and, after an extended chase into the desert, catches up to them, pinning their car against a tree. Here, Rusty Nail finally gets his hysterical apology over the airwaves and then simply withdraws, saying this was all just a retaliatory joke that is now finished. Wasn’t that funny?

Somewhat foolishly, the Thomas brothers believe this is all over and press on, tossing out the CB before they pick up Venna (Sobieski). After crossing over into Nebraska, the trio stop at a hotel and enjoy a defusing night in the adjoining bar. But once back in the room the phone rings; it’s Rusty, who is intrigued by their new friend. Filling Venna in on the danger she’s unwittingly placed herself in as they flee the hotel, through a series of nifty contrivances Rusty gives them back their discarded CB. And once it’s working again, the trucker reveals he has kidnapped Venna’s friend, Charlotte (Bowman), as leverage against them going to the cops. And using this leverage, he screws with them further, forcing Lewis and Fuller to enter a truckstop cafe stark naked and order a dozen cheeseburgers.

But this was just a ruse to isolate Venna outside in the parking lot; but this attempt to snatch her fails; and then the three of them are lured to a cornfield, which leads to a harrowing game of cat and mouse between the rows as Rusty Nail deftly stalks and separates them as they scramble for safety, snatches Venna, torches their car, and leaves Lewis and Fuller a message that if they want her back to meet him at the hotel in the next town, in the same room number they gave him at the beginning of this ordeal -- and be sure to bring a bottle of pink champagne to the party.

We never really get to see Rusty Nail except for a few fleeting glimpses during the climax when he restrains his captive and sets-up a shotgun deathtrap in the hotel room. That was Matthew Kimbrough, who was dubbed over by the distinctive voice of Ted Levine, who beat out the likes of Eric Roberts and Sylvester Stallone. Like in Duel, the 359 Peterbilt subs in beautifully as the villain but the menacing voice and Levine’s deadpan delivery really amps things up considerably.

In the original shot ending, the film climaxed in the cornfield after an even more contrived chain of events after the naked incident in the cafe, involving rescuing Charlotte not once but twice, the commandeering of a patrol car and Fuller disguising himself as a cop to rescue Venna, and ending with the detonation of a tank of fertilizer.

This ending is included on the 2002 Joy Ride DVD as a bonus feature, and after sitting through it you can understand why no one was really satisfied and why the finished film was officially shelved until they could go back and fix it. And so, they essentially flushed it all but incorporated the scenes in the cornfield as the set-up for the final conflict. (If you look close you can spot Fuller’s wardrobe changing back and forth in a couple of scenes. And later, Zahn is sporting a fairly hideous wig through most of the extensive re-shoots.) And as they struggled to find the right ending it was Dahl who suggested they come full circle and use the shotgun rigged to the hotel room door, meaning whoever opened it would blow the restrained Venna’s head off.

From there, the ending went through several permutations ( -- all of these are also included on the highly recommended DVD); one where Fuller and Lewis find the body of Charlotte instead of Venna and then get into an extended brawl with Rusty in the back of the hotel while the cops are kicking in doors out front, inching ever closer to room #18, where Venna really is, and ends with Rusty getting run over by his own truck:

Another one has Venna getting loose and she saves the day:

And a third finds Lewis and Rusty fighting in the hotel room. And as Lewis tries to get Venna out of the line of fire, Fuller fails to stop the cops, they kick in the door, but Lewis knocks Venna out of the way and Rusty gets hoisted with his own petard as he gets the fateful faceful of buckshot:

In the end, they tried one more time, mixing up elements from all three scenarios and then basically tossed in everything but the kitchen sink as Lewis and Fuller steal a pick-up at a roadhouse, make it into town, but find there are more than a dozen motels they must search before the midnight deadline. Of course it’s the last one they check, and as these two split up the shit really hits the fan as several attempts to open the door are barely aborted; but now Venna is still in danger and so is Fuller, who is hung up on a fence with Rusty Nail revving up and ready to flatten him, leaving it up to Lewis to save them both at the same time from two different dangers as the cops have arrived and are kicking down doors. And then it REALLY gets nucking futz.

Long before filming ever began on Joy Ride, J.J. Abrams got some crucial advice from Ed Feldman, the executive producer of The Hitcher, as they struggled with several script hiccups; like how come no one else was listening in on the same CB channel and called the cops? Or how did Rusty Nail know who Charlotte was? Or where Venna went to school? You’d think that big rig would’ve been easy enough to spot on campus. How did he manage to spray paint on all those signs on the Interstate without getting reported? Or which direction his prey would head once he flushed them out again to see those signs to look in the trunk to find the discarded CB? And at some point, with all those hotel stays, constant and extensive car repair, and gas, Lewis had to be real close to maxing out his credit card there. Here, Abrams took Feldman’s advice to heart: if what you’re doing is working, people will let even the most egregious leap in logic slide, so just make sure everything else is working.

Again, Dahl makes the shaky parts work and puts his foot through the floor on the solid bits. The sequence in the hotel when the initial prank backfires is a case study in sound design, dread and ratcheting tension. His startling use of color at night, especially the stark reds against a darkened background is eerie and unsettling. 

And later, we white-knuckle it through the chase in the cornfield and hang on as the ever-escalating ticking-clock climax keeps getting exponentially worse and worse for our heroes. But the film excels in the quieter moments, too. Dahl and cinematographer Jeffrey Jur gives the viewer a definitive sense of space, making great use of the wide-open vistas and long stretches of lonesome highways and the strange isolation they bring with a different story in each and every passing car.

On top of Dahl’s direction, the cast also really adds a lot to this movie, too, selling the hell out of every scene and elevating its enjoyability and rewatchability quotient something fierce. The plot they are plugged into is leaking, yes, but the characters are well defined and stay true, with believable flaws, and behave as any rational person would under these trying circumstances -- even feeling the guilt, knowing whose fault all of this really is.

Steve Zahn needs to make more movies, and he should be the gold standard against which all comedy relief is held to. He’s hilarious in this, but you also believe it when he’s freaked out and terrified, too. Credit to Paul Walker, as well, as the failed conscience of the duo; and you almost feel sorry for the guy as he silently pines for Venna but can’t find the words. There’s an interesting dynamic at play between these two as to who is the alpha male between the smarter but passive Lewis and the riskier and aggressive Fuller, who even makes a blatant pass at Venna when they all get smashed at the hotel -- traits that slowly switch as the film progresses, reaching total role reversal at the climax. Leelee Sobieski is hamstrung a bit, not really showing up until the movie is almost half over, but she has a couple of good scenes before she is essentially reduced to bait on a lure. I love her delivery when she asks how scared should she be, and later, when she’s alone at the cafe in the car, and she tries to connect with Rusty is some top-notch stuff. The chemistry between all three leads just crackles, making it easy to get on-board with this group of travelers, who you root for, worry about, and hope don’t get killed -- something extremely rare in horror films of this vintage. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's ten down with 16 to go!

Joy Ride (2001) Regency Enterprises :: Epsilon Motion Pictures :: New Regency Pictures :: Bad Robot :: LivePlanet :: 20th Century Fox / EP: Arnon Milchan, Patrick Markey, Bridget Johnson, Jeffrey Downer / P: J.J. Abrams, Chris Moore / AP: W. Mark McNair / D: John Dahl / W: Clay Tarver, J.J. Abrams / C: Jeff Jur / E: Eric L. Beason, Scott Chestnut, Todd E. Miller, Glen Scantlebury / M: Marco Beltrami / S: Paul Walker, Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski, Jessica Bowman, Jim Beaver, Matthew Kimbrough, Ted Levine

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