At a key juncture in writer-director Jeremy Ungar’s debut feature, a passenger in a rideshare pulls out a large gun and recites Martin Scorsese’s ‘what a Magnum will do’ speech from Taxi Driver. One of the people he’s menacing instantly gets the reference, but the gun is still real and the seesaw between whimsy and danger is tipped – though, crucially, not all the way. The rise of apps/services like Uber and Lyft are liable to throw up as many horror-suspense film premises as mobile phones did a generation ago and social media a few years back – and this one shouldn’t be mistaken for the similarly-titled, also Los Angeles-set Ryde. This is as much an entry in the ‘escalation of craziness’ cycle epitomised by Cheap Thrills or Chop, and also feels like a conscious update/reworking of Michael Mann’s Collateral, which was once cutting edge in its look but now has a definite old hat video blur vibe.
James (Jessie T. Usher), an actor working nights as a Ride driver, picks up Jessica (Bella Thorne), a pretty girl, and they hit it off on a short drive … she dangles an invite to drinks in a club, but he gets another call on the app and fails to get her number. His next fare, ‘Bruno A’ (Will Brill), is just as unconventional, but has a kind of sketchy bonhomie that’s on a knife-edge between mateyness and aggression, coercing James with a hint of shared carousing (and a couple of hundred dollar bills), cajoling the driver-actor (whose career highlight is a henchman on Agents of SHIELD) into reciting from Richard II and then, when he hears the story of the previous fare, insisting he go back to the club to pick up the girl for an evening’s jaunt that might end in a hot tub in Malibu. Bruno, whose character name is taken from Strangers on a Train, is vague about where he actually wants to go, claiming to have just broken up with his girlfriend, and comes back from a brief call at a supposed friend’s apartment with blood on his shirt and a transparent lie about a nosebleed. Only when Jessica is in the car, and can serve as a hostage, does the gun come out … and Bruno insists James rob a liquor store, as a preface to more dangerous games.
Of course, Ride’s dynamic goes back to noirs like The Hitch-Hiker or horror road movies like The Hitcher, but the app gives it a modern urban myth feel – and the reason the film works for at least its first hour is that all three performances are instantly engaging. Ungar feints several times – as when Jessica wonders whether the two guys have set her up just as we’re wondering whether she’s in cahoots with Bruno – and never quite settles all the issues with his villain and the extent of his crimes. It’s a compact 76 minutes long, and runs out of gas just before its slightly unsatisfactory end – perhaps appropriately, the film is gripping when the characters are in the car, simply talking, and fumbles a bit when we get to the end of the road and have to leave the pleather interior. Nevertheless, Brill’s Bruno is a terrific, uncomfortable characterisation – a weak man assuming a mantle of power (and a gun), whose wheedling dudebro philosophy, patronising hearty flattery, faux-charming rule-breaking (ignoring James’ ‘you can’t smoke in my car’ with a look-how-naughty-I-am-but-you-have-to-like-me grin), genuine insights creully deployed, and bitter streak make him unpredictable.