Road Kill, also known as Joy Ride or Never Play with Strangers is a 2001 thriller directed by John Dahl and written by JJ Abrams. It follows student Lewis Thomas (Paul Walker) who agrees to drive his childhood friend Venna (Leelee Sobieski) home from University. On his way to pick her up, he is asked by his mother to bail out his brother Fuller (Steve Zahn).
On route to Venna the two discover that the car has a CB radio and after listening, they decide to use the radio to play a prank on a truck driver whose handle is Rusty Nail. Pretending to be a lonely woman called Candy Cane, they agree a secret meetup with Rusty Nail, but send him to the motel room next to theirs. After hearing some strange noises, they awake to discover the man staying in that room had his lower jaw torn off and as they begin to panic about their involvement Rusty Nail appears on the CB again, asking for the whereabouts of Candy Cane.
JJ Abrams was a relative unknown in Hollywood at the time he wrote Road Kill, but his talent for intrigue and suspense were clear even this early in his career. Using nods from Steven Spielberg’s Duel (someone he obviously looks to emulate) he constructs one of the most suspenseful films since The Silence of the Lambs. Playing against this tension is the interplay and dialogue of the brothers central to the narrative. A straight man and a funny man, Walker and Zahn have never been better and it’s easy to see off of this evidence why Hollywood thought they might be the ˜next big things.’
Dahl’s direction is also impressive, and the man most famous for Red Rock West and Rounders constructs scenes to help pile on the tension in the same way Alfred Hitchcock did in his heyday. The rich neon colours that flood the scenes at night help add to the explotation roots of the story and remind us of a dirtier, less cosy world than it appears during the day.
Road Kill appears from trailer and marketing material to be a standard thriller starring two of Hollywood’s then rising stars. However the tight direction from Dahl combined with the fast-paced and tension-filled script from Abrams leads to the most pleasant of surprises. A thriller that harks back to the late, great Alfred Hitchcock while offering actual character depth and some big scares along the way, Road Kill is a real gem of a film and will have you saying ˜Candy Cane’ in a deep Southern drawl for weeks after viewing.