The Ranger should be a great slasher movie. It has all the prerequisite elements: an interesting villain, solid chops both in front of and behind the camera, an unusual hook on which to hang its ideas, and a familiar – if trite – setting. Why then was I left feeling disappointed when the end credits rolled?
Things start off in an interesting fashion; a group of punks become embroiled in some shady goings-on and, following a violent encounter with the local police, are forced to go on the run. Our heroine, Chelsea, was brought up in the woods by an uncle and has an isolated cabin in which they can hole up until things cool off. One meeting with the eponymous ranger and we’re off to the races. As far as slasher movies go, it’s a plot that’s hoary and well-trodden but serviceable; Knob A goes into Hole B as the film goes along exactly as expected.
This is an issue. Any horror movie, arguably in the slasher genre more than most others, can get around any predictable scripting – does any group show greater tolerance of plot holes than the horror crowd? – with strong characterisation and rip-roaring pacing. The Ranger has neither of these. It’s a very short movie – home and hosed by 80 minutes – but the first act is incredibly slow. Following the initial beats, the next forty minutes or so are filled with shots of the woods, the cast driving to the woods, walking in the woods, and generally behaving unreasonably in the woods; the first body drops over half of the way through and, as a result, the film feels baggy, pedestrian and, at points, really rather dull. Once we do start to wind up towards the movie’s climax though, the body count ticks through, and The Ranger gets more interesting. Characters are eliminated regularly and in reasonably entertaining fashion. The most serious issue with the movie though is its characterisation.
Everyone in The Ranger seems to be an inveterate asshole. It is admirable and goes some way in differentiating it from other not-bad slasher movies that it focusses on punks; however, it presents them all in such broad strokes that they seem almost offensively stereotypical. Aside from looking a bit alternative and consuming Hunter S. Thompson levels of drugs, the whole cultural aspect is completely incidental to the plot. With such an interesting hook, I’m surprised that first-time screenwriters Jenn Wexler and Giaco Furino didn’t see fit to do the culture justice; as it stands, they’re just assholes who happen to look like punks. There are also significant issues with a twist towards the end which is simultaneously signposted very early on whilst feeling almost comedically random when it finally happens. This leads to a showdown between The Ranger and the mandatory final girl which, following a hard right into WTF territory, seems tacked on and then, sequentially, to a final scene which sought to raise existential questions about nature but really looked rather silly.
Given the rather slim pickings in the script, the cast do an amiable job. The stand out is Jeremy Holm, best known for turns in Mr Robot and House of Cards, as the titular ranger. Straddling a fine line between ‘PsychoCop’-style gurning lunacy and ‘Maniac Cop’-esque physicality, there’s little argument that the movie’s villain makes an interesting entry into the slasher club. On the opposite side of the crosshairs stands Chloe Levine as heroine Chelsea, whose cutesy, wide-eyed performance makes her an engaging presence, especially as things become more threatening. Nominally, Levine has the movie’s most complete developmental arc but that’s not really saying much; following the aforementioned twist, she’s required to present Chelsea as an entirely different creature and wrestles amiably with both sides of her limited character. The rest of the cast are even less defined; there’s a gay couple played by Jeremy Pope and Bubba Weiler who have both the movie’s most emotional moment and its grisliest demises, and Amanda Grace Benitez’s Amber who seems to be doing her best to channel Ramona Flowers. Special mention has to go however to Chelsea’s boyfriend Garth, played by Granit Lahu, the most irritating character I’ve seen this year to date. Lahu does a good job with what he’s given, but the character is so all over the place that on one hand he kills a man with his bare hands and on the other berates others for seeing him as a bad guy; in a film of unlikeable assholes he’s the most unlikeable asshole – evidence of some talent at work and praise indeed.
The Ranger is also Wexler’s feature debut in the director’s chair and she fairs rather better with the camera than the pen. Shot on a modest budget, it looks like a movie with a significant one; even at night, the action is clearly framed and presented. She shows some real flashes of flair, and many shots really add to a sense of claustrophobia and panic as the movie progresses; there might be issues with her writing but as a showcase for a new director, there’s far more to appreciate here. This is further developed with the clever use of sound; Wexler uses cutaways and shots of the forest to distance The Ranger from its roots as a budget offering. Your ability to tolerate average punk music will dictate the extent to which you enjoy the soundtrack, but the incidental music is excellent – evocative without being intrusive. There’s little use of special effects but what’s here is practical and really impressively done, especially in an excruciating scene involving a bear trap and in a duel involving an axe.
So, why then was I left feeling disappointed when the end credits rolled? The short answer is The Ranger feels like a missed opportunity. Wexler – who has production credits for, amongst other things, the wonderful Most Beautiful Island – is a promising and interesting director let down by the meandering and poorly paced script; the idea of using punks – indeed punk itself – as a backdrop was used to terrifying fashion in Saulnier’s brutal Green Room but is here purely as set dressing; there’s talent in front of the camera, a cast who are working hard to find something in the wafer-thin characters they’re trying to wear; and there’s a fanbase – a loyal and tolerant fanbase – for slasher movies. The Ranger isn’t a terrible movie, it isn’t a bad one either, but it isn’t a great one. Wexler is an interesting new director and, on the evidence here, I’m interested to see what she does next; there’s certainly a space in the genre for her particular eye. Based on this effort though, she needs a far better script to showcase her talents.
The Ranger was screened at the Boston Underground Film Festival on Saturday, 24 March 2018.