Making a welcome return to Red Rock West territory, John Dahl’s Joy Ride (Twentieth Century Fox) toys nimbly with noir and horror conventions for its sinuous, darkly funny first 45 minutes or so, bunking down with Lewis (Paul Walker) and his newly prison-sprung brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), as they drive through cactus country to collect Lewis’s just-a-friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) from college. Twitchy with cabin fever from the get-go, the developmentally arrested Fuller gets his mitts on a CB radio and wheedles his nice-guy brother into pranking a trucker via a coquettish falsetto and a hotel-room invitation. Dahl lingers patiently over the CB exchanges, recording the queasying increments by which harmless mischief warps into wanton cruelty—and Joy Ride hardly lacks for the latter, because the rig jockey they’ve tricked is (natch) a clever nutjob bent on teaching a lesson to these naughty boys and the pretty young thing they have in tow. His slurry, disembodied drawl curls into their car at all hours, like a poison gas.
Indeed, a vaguely noxious cloud hangs over all of Joy Ride, with its jaundiced Midwest vistas and the sickly greenish cast of its Motel 6 interiors. Noir fetishist Dahl loves a good midnight storm (as in the film’s ingeniously creepy pivotal scene, when the sounds of rain, thunder, and passing trucks smear into the rattlings of things that go bump in the night) and treasures his trove of references: Hitchcock and Taxi Driver compete with Wilder and, yes, Christine. He blithely speeds past the script’s scary-movie improbabilities—or, when all else fails, hangs them on Zahn’s pigheaded firestarter. Redoubtably hilarious as always, Zahn also lends his character unpredictable flashes of anger, pathos, and faint psychosis, even when the movie jumps the median from ticklishly discomfiting black comedy into by-the-numbers horror jolts.
Joy Ride‘s damsel in distress Sobieski plays another troubled teen contemplating her own death in My First Mister (Paramount Classics, opening October 12): “I’m a fucking poet,” spits the kohl-damaged goth loner. “And when I’m not writing poems, I’m writing eulogies—mine.” The best that can be said about director Christine Lahti’s feature debut is that it doesn’t fall into any ready category: Its runny coming-of-age premise, entailing a pierced sociopath falling in helpless love with the depressive mall-store manager who all but adopts her on first sight, spills over into unwatchably mawkish disease-of-the-week bathos. Poor Albert Brooks, subject to multiple indignities as the titular sadsack, wanders through the film like a kidnap victim with a befogging case of Scheherazade syndrome.