The set-up is very simple. Two brothers, naïve college freshman Lewis and his wayward alcoholic older brother Fuller are on a road trip to collect Lewis's true love Venna (Leelee Sobieski) from college in Colorado. They play a cruel joke over their new CB radio on a sinister disembodied trucker with the handle 'Rusty Nail', which goes terribly wrong, prompting the trucker to enact violent retribution. The cast carry the burden of the intense focus on just three characters well, but several dead-ends exist in the film, which oddly begins in the middle of a tense personal situation that has neither coherent genesis nor closure.
Though it aids in the film's clever frustration of expectations, the romantic set-up and fraught ménage a trios is never really followed up on. The hint that Sobieski might be more interested in the older jailbait brother played by Steve Zahn also highlights the shortcomings of Paul Walker. Handsome but anodyne, he is perfectly cast as the callow and shallow younger brother, easily led and somewhat hopeless when it comes to effectively wooing the girl has lusted for from a distance throughout his first year at college. Zahn's comic muscles remain surprisingly un-flexed in comparison to his appearances in Happy, Texas and Ethan Hawke's Hamlet. Normally content to remain dowdy and barefaced, the ubiquitous Sobieski is convincingly sexed up in this picture, and the stunned and delighted reaction shots of the men are unnecessary signposting for the audience that she has considerable physical appeal.
One of the best things about the movie is its failure to follow the mounting-tension-to-explosive-conclusion teleology so beloved of Hollywood shock-merchants. There are frights all the way through, and some of the best moments come near the beginning, ensuring that tension is maintained evenly throughout. Several barely watchable scenes of the pantomime he's-behind-you! variety, are exciting despite the familiarity of the device. The tease of never really showing us Rusty Nail's face is, however, somewhat diffused by various demystifying glimpses towards the end of a florid, overweight good ole boy straining with heavy bodies. The enigmatic, opaque ending has sequel written all over it, but is still an admirably low-key approach to wrapping up a horror movie.
The film bears favourable comparison with Spielberg's brilliant first full-length feature, Duel, which also features an anonymous, terrifying truck. Scarier on the big screen, it is still suspenseful enough to grip on VHS. This slick thriller performed well at both US and UK box office, and is likely to have a long video shelf life, rising as it does far above the very many similar films of its genre.