The Thriller That Dared Not to Reveal Its Killer’s Face

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Summary

  • Joy Ride
    cleverly taps into post-9/11 fear with a faceless killer, offering a unique twist on the classic thriller genre.
  • The film’s originality and suspense make it a fantastic noir thriller that still holds up over 20 years later.
  • Steve Zahn and Paul Walker deliver great performances in a film that explores the horrors of domestic, American, and faceless threats.



Just as the summer of 2001 ended, an event occurred in the United States that would change the country, the entire world, and all the generations that lived through it. The dynamics underwent a radical shift, bringing songs, movies, and TV shows under scrutiny. If they dared show terrorism, anger, and what existed before Ground Zero, then they’d have to be changed in favor of the sensibility of an entire nation that would grieve for many years.

The fear was felt everywhere. Osama bin Laden’s face was in every corner of the media. An entire religion suffered the prejudice brought upon by those who attacked the nation as they screamed the name of God in a foreign language that was now blasphemous. In terms of movies, schedules were pulled, trailers were changed, and some scripts suffered major rewrites. But what about those that had already gone through a release? John Dahl’s thriller Joy Ride was on schedule, and after a solid response at TIFF, it was time for a major release. The poster was everywhere, showing three gorgeous faces, a car, and a truck. Nothing more. It stayed away from being ominous.


Joy Ride

Joy Ride

Release Date
October 5, 2001

Director
John Dahl

After a terrorist attack changed the American psyche, audiences attended theaters for escapism. Not only did we see movies differently. They affected us in ways we had never recognized as possible. In the case of Joy Ride, what seemed like a perfect road trip for sibling rivalry to become a reunion turned into a horrific ordeal. Perhaps we weren’t ready for such a blow, but then again, who is? What were we supposed to expect from a premise that was entirely possible and was only fueled by an immature act?


Dahl’s design of the film was based on one thing: What if, during a year when the enemy had a face and was more famous than rock stars, the film’s antagonist was faceless? What if this could happen in real life, and a maniacal madman could get away with a deadly rampage and ramble free because we couldn’t recognize him? In one of the most crucial periods at the turn of the century, Joy Ride represented the greatest threat: domestic, American, and faceless. This is how Joy Ride got away with never showing its villain’s face.


Who Is the Killer in Joy Ride?

In Joy Ride, Lewis Thomas takes a leap of faith and plans a last-minute trip across the country to pick up his childhood crush, Venna, in Colorado. However, during the journey, he discovers Fuller, his big brother, is in prison and must be bailed out. Lewis decides to help him, and they begin the road trip together.


Fuller gets an idea. At a service station, he buys and installs a CB radio to help them communicate with fellow drivers and avoid speed control by law enforcement. Using the radio, they decide to play a prank on Rusty Nail, a truck driver who buys into the story that Lewis is Candy Cane, a horny woman on the road. When it’s time to make a stop at a motel to spend the night, they meet a violent man who verbally attacks Fuller. That is how the prank grows in scope: they tell Rusty to meet Candy Cane at the motel, where the furious man will wait. Lewis and Fuller listen as Rusty arrives and shockingly sees who’s waiting isn’t exactly Candy Cane. The brothers hear a commotion in the other room and call the motel manager, who tells them everything is fine. However, they clearly feel something is wrong.


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When they wake up, they realize the police are treating the motel like a crime scene, and they suspect Rusty Nail may have been the victim of an attack by the disgruntled man. However, the police reveal that, due to their prank, Rusty Nail has viciously attacked the man whose life is hanging by a thread. When the agents let Lewis and Fuller go, Rusty Nail calls for Candy Cane on the radio. He’s out for blood, and he won’t stop until the brothers suffer the wrath of the sociopath, who doesn’t care for pranks.

Steve Zahn and Paul Walker Are Great Leads in Joy Ride


The movie works primarily because of Paul Walker’s and Steve Zahn’s performances as Lewis and Fuller, respectively. They’re great demonstrations of what it meant to be young, reckless, and cool in the early 2000s. At least, that’s in the first half of the film when they believe they’re immune to punishment for any misbehavior, even if related to a prank that felt harmless.

Their progression to victims is fast, but Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams’ script is finely tuned for this to be as natural as possible. The addition of Leelee Sobieski to the roster is inevitable, but it doesn’t feel inconsistent with the tone of the film. Their figures are strong but never as strong as those of their antagonist, Rusty Nail, who has managed to wreak havoc without showing his face.


In addition, the film features a fine acting moment from the early 2000s, which has gone unappreciated for decades, with Steve Zahn’s characters’ facial expressions when they find out who the victim in the motel was. In that face, you’ll find remorse, regret, and absolute fear. This is how Fuller realizes he will pay at some point.

Joy Ride Nearly Shows Rusty Nail’s Face

Nevertheless, Joy Ride is one of those films that went through the DVD craze of the 2000s. Every release was worth having because every DVD had extras. Those were the days of physical media, and if you got your hands on a copy of Joy Ride, you would find a great extra in the form of alternate endings.


It remains a mystery who decided on the theatrical cut, but the mere existence of this footage may be revealing. Not many films had alternate endings, especially those that lasted more than a few minutes. On the DVD, you can find a 29-minute alternate conclusion where Rusty dies by suicide, and you can get some glimpses of his body. In others, you could also see his face and more of his acts.

Producers usually demand these changes after test screenings, and in the case of Joy Ride, it feels like too much of a coincidence that Rusty Nail’s face is visible in the footage that was left out. Of course, this isn’t the first film to hide its killer’s face. However, released just one month after 9/11, the idea of a faceless killer certainly terrified audiences, and the film wouldn’t have been the same if Rusty Nail had a face.

Joy Ride Is a Fantastic Noir Thriller That Still Holds Up


More than 20 years after its release, Joy Ride remains as effective a thriller as it was in 2001. The performances are great, the script is well-written, and the third act keeps you on the edge of your seat. We could argue and speculate about what makes it such a good thriller, but the killer being someone we can’t see certainly led to the film’s originality.

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Yes, it was heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg’s Duel, another film in which the director didn’t share the driver’s face with the audience. Terror came in the form of experimental camera work and a great use of sound. Also, the lack of reason seemed to make the whole situation otherwordly. But in Joy Ride, there is a reason. It’s just uncanny, but Rusty Nail did what he did because “the boys were boys.”


In 2001, when fear was at an all-time high and when terrorism had a face, a small film by a noir master arrived in theaters and accomplished the impossible. It terrified everybody beyond their wits but didn’t humanize evil. It just gave it a voice, and by the power of the sound, Joy Ride became the masterful exercise in the genre that fought against standards and succeeded in causing havoc without showing its killer’s face. Joy Ride is available to stream on Tubi.

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