When you’ve got over making “Fast and Furious” references at Paul Walker doing car stunts (and have, for the deep cut fans, noticed that the voice of “Rusty Nail” is also in that movie), there’s a surprisingly good movie lurking somewhere. It’s also a relatively early credit for genre titan JJ Abrams – after writing and producing a couple of Harrison Ford movies in the 90s, he was in the middle of his first TV show “Felicity” when he turned his hand to this.
Walker is Lewis, and he’s been in love with Venna (Leelee Sobieski) since forever; while chatting from their separate colleges, she mentions her ride back to their home town has cancelled on her. He, like any fine man, sees an opportunity so cancels his plane ticket and uses it to buy a car to go and pick her up with. So far, so good, and I was right there with him – but there’s a snag, and that snag is his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn). He has to bail Fuller out of jail on the way, and Fuller just decides to tag along; however, it’s when he decides on a whim to buy a CB radio and fit it to the car that the movie really kicks off.
Really, it’s about Lewis continuing to make bad decisions, inspired by his Fuller for sure, a character who seems pathologically unable to do the right thing – but bad decisions nonetheless. While flicking through the CB radio “channels”, they encounter the rather unusually sounding Rusty Nail (an unbilled Ted Levine, one of the greatest voices in the business), and Fuller pressures Lewis into putting on a female voice and pranking the trucker. This escalates, involving murder, and then Rusty Nail decides to get his own back on the two brothers – and Venna, when she gets picked up too.
If you’ve seen “Duel”, you’ll have a bit of an idea of how things progress. A seemingly magic, unstoppable truck pursues our heroes, with the added creepiness of a voice (we never really see Rusty Nail) using a kidnapped friend to force them into ever tighter corners. There are some fantastic set-pieces in it and lots of clever little moments, and if you ignore the overarching plot completely, you’ll have a really good time. But, of course, it’s really difficult to ignore the plot of a movie.
I guess the chief issue is Rusty Nail’s supernatural abilities. He identifies the car the brothers are driving in, then follows them all the way to Venna’s college, tracking them and remaining undetected despite the fact he’s in a huge big-rig truck. Then he figures out that the woman our three heroes had a casual conversation with outside the dorm was actually Venna’s roommate and not some vague casual acquaintance, and kidnaps her too (while staying in CB range). And there’s the time he figures out what road they’re going to use, then spraypaints a message on road signs, one word at a time. So, he’d have needed to work out how many words he wanted to use and paint them in reverse, or he’d have been driving for miles on the wrong side of the road. No other road user stopped him or reported him to the police in all this time. It’s also exceedingly unlucky that the one guy they picked at random to prank is a grimly determined psychopathic murderer, but I guess without such coincidences, the movies would be a less busy place.
There’s justification for all this stuff, and Roger Ebert (who loved this movie) goes through a few of them…but I don’t buy it. Given the movie’s only 97 minutes long, it could have spared a minute to explain just how he’s able to do what he does. Or perhaps I’m complaining about the wrong things, because it’s still packed with fun and excitement (Zahn’s ability to be comic relief in the middle of a pretty tense thriller is a lot of fun to witness), with a crescendo that really knocks it out of the park. Director John Dahl seems to be a TV guy these days, having not directed a non-TV movie since 2007, which is a shame; he’s got a great ability to make the ordinary into the frightening. Plus, his commentary on the DVD is excellent, full of self-deprecating humour and stuff like “I never want to shoot another car as long as I live”.
When you find a question forming in your mind that starts “how did he…?”, just cut it off and enjoy the movie. And wonder about the shape it could have taken – three separate endings were filmed, and Sobieski filmed “romantic interludes” with Zahn and Walker, both of which were cut. The lack of any real romance at the heart of the film is odd, but a good kind of odd I think. Also, if you’re in the UK or Australia, the title of the movie will be “Roadkill”, because joy-riding is a slightly less pleasant thing over here.
Rating: thumbs up