A short trip to a hazy finish line, thriller “Ride” has a decent premise in the driver of an Uber-type rideshare service finding himself imperiled by the hidden agenda of an increasingly threatening passenger. But despite its brief runtime, writer-director Jeremy Ungar’s film has space enough to never quite settle on a tone, reducing its suspense potential by various gambits — in particular an antagonist whose primary impact is more annoying than frightening.
Competently crafted, this L.A.-set indie opening on 10 U.S. screens (simultaneous with digital-formats release) a week after its LA Film Festival premiere is competently crafted enough to work well as a résumé-builder for its participants, but also underwhelmingly conceived enough to impress viewers as little more than a forgettable time-killer.
Nattily dressed aspiring actor James (Jessie T. Usher) starts his shift as a driver for the taxi-alternative app “Ride” by picking up attractive Jessica (Bella Thorne). They hit it off to the point where upon exiting, she invites him to join her friends for a drink once he’s done working.
Next up is Bruno (Will Brill), a slightly older man who immediately seems a bit shady. He dangles large bills to circumvent Ride’s standard protocols, basically hiring James to drive him around all night without a fixed destination. He seems to want company as much as a chauffeur, yet his is the kind of excess chumminess that you sense could turn ugly on a dime. After a couple of initial stops — including one where Bruno’s absence is punctuated by what sounds like gunfire — he persuades James to take up Jessica’s offer, and further invite her to a “party with a hot tub in Malibu.”
The newly-met trio have fun for a bit. But very soon Bruno shows his true colors, to the others’ considerable alarm. (Suffice it to say that by this point, there is weaponry involved.) Trapped, they have to do his bidding, which is impulsive, mean-spirited, and quite certain not to end well.
As the protagonists drive around Greater Los Angeles, their lives apparently at stake, “Ride’s” pressing concern becomes whether our protagonists can escape Bruno. We’d like to escape him, too — not so much because he’s a terror, as because he’s a jerk. He’s the kind of bully who pushes buttons until an alarm goes off, then backs off with, “Just kidding!!” Until, of course, it turns out he’s definitely not kidding.
Or is he? The trouble with the role and Brill’s performance is that it feels too much a vehicle for an actor’s bag of tricks, with the mercurial mood shifts and pervasive snark seeming less organic to a disturbed character than indulgent of a flamboyant turn. Once Bruno’s apparent heart of darkness is revealed, it just seems further proof of a bratty, nasty-class-clown nature. It’s possible to render that personality type truly creepy, but “Ride” doesn’t quite manage it. While Bruno will make for some impressive clip-reel excerpts for the actor, he doesn’t make for a very good villain over the full narrative haul. He’s more in the realm of a pest.
As a result, the film never becomes as harrowing as it means to. Nor is its sum effect done any favors by ending on a note that feels inconsequential rather than conclusive, or even emotionally satisfying. If we’re meant to think of this “wild ride” as just one more such episode for a diabolical thrill-seeker, the script isn’t ingenious enough to pay off as that kind of gamesmanship.
Nonetheless, all three actors labor to make it work, demonstrating their professional skill sets (Thorne sings, Usher recites Shakespeare) to somewhat admirable effect — even if overall credibility and tension remain elusive. Despite some good use of locations, the film’s smooth-enough aesthetic choices aren’t distinguished enough for “Ride” to transcend psychological or narrative shortcomings as an exercise in pure style.