The former American frontierpaved but untamed, and dominated by long stretches of open space dotted by only the most rudimentary elements of civilizationcan feel unsettling even from the comfort of a car. Joy Ride, an unapologetically sleazy but entertainingly effective thriller, captures that feeling, which is one of the main reasons it works so well for so long. The film employs one simple premise, turning a mean-spirited prank back against its pranksters: Paul Walker, a college student returning home for the summer, and brother Steve Zahn, the troubled black sheep of the family. Traveling cross-country in a vintage Chrysler on their way to pick up Walker's could-be girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski), they use their CB to trick a gravel-voiced trucker with the none-too-comforting handle Rusty Nail into an imaginary liaison at a run-down hotel. But they don't anticipate the violence resulting from his humiliation, or expect him to direct his wrath at them, resulting in a cross-country cat-and-mouse game in the spirit of Steven Spielberg's TV movie Duel. Following the underwhelming Rounders, Joy Ride marks an unlikely return to form for director John Dahl, best known for the modern noirs Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Though the film loses steam due to one grand finale too many and a denouement that doesn't make much sense, it mostly works as a kind of superior exploitation film, a nice companion piece to the similarly pitched (and just plain similar) Breakdown. Walker, as usual, is a nonentity, and Sobieski doesn't have much to do, but Zahn works to keep matters lively, having apparently been given free rein to ad lib. His presence, the fast-lane pace, and Dahl's assured handling of the suspense all help convert material better suited for the kind of pulp novels thoughtlessly consumed by 13-year-old girls into cinematic pulp to be thoughtlessly consumed, and enjoyed, by a much wider audience.