27 APRIL 2002, Page 46


Roadkill (15, selected cinemas)

Trucking along

Mark Steyn

Roadkill was called Joy Ride in the United States, and the British title is a great improvement, if a little puzzling, given that `roadkill' is an Americanism — for the freezer-filling deceased wildlife scraped off the asphalt by frugal rednecks. In, say, Shropshire, that would be mostly hedgehogs. But, in your average American state, we're talking deer, raccoon, cougar ... ; if the truck hits it nice and clean, no sense letting it go to waste. There's a `Roadkill Café' at Moosehead Lake, Maine, and doubtless in a few other places as well: it's one of those bluntly descriptive rural terms that's become a perverse source of cultural pride.

And that, in essence, is the spirit of this picture. Roadkill is a road movie rattling along through Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska. but, wherever they are, you can guarantee the gas station will be a desolate, windswept, ramshackle outpost, the bar will be full of toilet-mouthed bozos, the rainlashed neon-lit motel will have no amenities apart from the porno channel, and in between there's nothing but two-lane blacktop stretching endlessly into the distance. The guys trying to avoid winding up as roadkill are two boys and a girl who run afoul of a psycho trucker. But, of course, in this vision of rural America, everyone's a psycho — the trucker, the travelling salesman at the motel, the barflies. Even the couple of fellows who aren't psychos look like psychos — big, leathery, stumptoothed old things with long grey hair, faded denim and swinging a tire iron.

John Dahl made one movie I just loved, The Last Seduction, which should have made Linda Fiorentino a star but somehow didn't. Roadkill isn't in that class but it shares the same black humour and bravura style. We begin in Berkeley, California, where college boy Lewis (Paul Walker) is on the phone to Venna (Leelee Sobieski). an old high-school pal he'd like to be in bed with but in order to get there he's going through the tedious but often effective route of pretending to be her 'best friend', the reliable supportive confidante. She's at college in Boulder, and he casually says he'll swing by and give her a ride back east. Only problem, he hasn't got a car. So he buys what he can afford, a 1971 Chrysler

Newport (nice), and sets off, detouring via Salt Lake to spring his feckless older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) from jail.

Fuller is the kind of guy who goes looking for trouble, no matter how much effort it takes. As his contribution to livening the journey, he buys a 40-buck CB radio (It's kind of a prehistoric Internet') and starts yakking to bored truckers in a southern drawl and under the nom-de-chemin 'Black Sheep'. His brother he christens 'Mama's Boy'. Then he gets a better idea, and talks Lewis into pretending to be a gal, 'Candy Cane', looking for just the right man. A gravelly dude by the name 'Rusty Nail' answers, and next thing you know, just for a laugh, 'Candy' is arranging a rendezvous at the Lone Star Motel, room 17. Room 17 is actually occupied by an obnoxious bully, but Lewis and Fuller will be in the next room, weeping with laughter as 'Rusty' discovers his dream date is really a guy.

Unfortunately for Lewis and Fuller, Rusty is jes' plum crazy, and doesn't see the funny side. And from thereon in he pursues the boys down the highway wreaking a terrible unending revenge. They want no further truck with him but the truculent trucker won't let up, a dark unseen force bearing down on them from the cab of a huge 18wheeler. Their various trials, from cornfield carnage to public nudity, are hugely enjoyable in part because they deserve their humiliation: Lewis is a pliant weenie, Fuller a careless chancer who's been pretty much asking for it all along. As the latter, Steve Zahn helps make this not just a road movie but almost a Road movie: he's like a Bob Hope for the 21st century, selling himself to the gals on the absolute transparency of his come-ons and his cowardice. I like the moment when he demonstrates to the cops the strange noises he heard and makes like a woozy coyote, and I enjoyed his little motel-room riff on his all-American boyhood: 'Mom's chocolate chip cookies, playing ball with Dad on Sundays ... no, wait, that's someone else's childhood.'

Aside from the cop-out ending, when a droll little thriller dissolves into generic mayhem, Dahl pulls off a fine celebration of sheer style. Roadkill is a film full of allusions, to everything from Steven Spielberg's Duel to North by Northwest, but more than that there's a sense in which the characters are aware of themselves as movie types. As Lewis and Venna move toward each other in the front seat. Fuller looms from behind and announces, 'This is the part where you kiss the girl.' The irascible Wyoming sheriff

is playing the kind of irascible sheriff he's seen in movies. You notice this more and more in what passes for real life these days: small-town cops behave like movie smalltown cops, waitresses like movie waitresses. In my experience, truckers don't yet behave like homicidal movie truckers, but it's only a matter of time.