Road Kill

(aka Joy Ride, John Dahl, USA, 2001)


The career of director John Dahl went into freefall after the fine days of Red Rock West (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994). Dahl is comfortable with the circumscribed elements of neo noir, but tends to lose his grip when working in broader cinematic genres like thriller (Unforgettable, 1996) and drama (Rounders, 1988). Since the mid 2000s, he has decamped to high-level TV episode assignments including Breaking Bad, Hannibal and The Americans.


Road Kill revisits the premise of Steven Spielberg’s sturdy Duel (1971), but is closer to the contemporaneous teen-horror hit Jeepers Creepers (2001). The script is a relatively early, pre-mega-fame effort from J.J. Abrams, here co-writing with Clay Tarver.


An ominous-looking truck, with a spookily unseen driver known over the CB radio airwaves as Rusty Nail (voiced by Matthew Kimbrough), terrorises a hire car containing three scared youths on a trip through the wilds of America.


Nice guy Lewis (Paul Walker) pines for strong, sensible Venna (Leelee Sobieski). The prospect of them getting together romantically during this trip is complicated by the presence of Lewis’ bad-seed brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn).


The movie is a forgettable, by-the-numbers exercise. Dahl does what he can with the predictable imagery of vehicles racing through the night, seedy motels and redneck locals.


He has more luck with the soundtrack – less the music (by Marco Beltrami) than the rasping, jagged noises and brutal silences issuing from the teens’ increasingly menacing CB unit. Like a dead body in a contemporary film noir, this radio is what the heroes strive to ignore or suppress – but it always returns to haunt them.


Joy Ride, the film’s original USA title, conjures (no doubt ironically) a teen comedy. The UK/Australia release title of Road Kill misses the nuance that, in fact, Dahl and his writers are trying to crossbreed comedy and action-thriller.


The jokes, and a general air of flipness, come through the extremely irritating presence of Zahn – ever ready to deflate the tension or intrigue of a scene with his goofy antics. It would be a long time – 20 years, in fact – before Zahn became bearable to me in Mike White’s rather overrated TV series The White Lotus (season 1).


Even worse, the casting of Sobieski seems to have prompted a retooling of the project to accommodate the superfluous element of female empowerment. She is a terrific actor (see Eyes Wide Shut, 1999), but such modishness produces unintentionally hilarious results.


Instead of squealing in the face of terror, as one would humanly do (never mind the gender stereotype), Venna forever sticks her hands on her hips at moments of high tension and rationally castigates the boys: “Don’t tell me how scared I should be!”

© Adrian Martin July 2002 / November 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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