Studio: Glass Eye Pix
Director: Jenn Wexler
Writer: Jenn Wexler, Giaco Furino
Producer: Andrew van den Houten, Larry Fessenden, Ashleigh Snead, Heather Buckley, Jenn Wexler
Stars: Chloe Levine, Granit Lahu, Jeremy Pope, Bubba Weiler, Amanda Grace Benitez, Jeremy Holm
A teenage girl hiding a dark family secret partners with her punk friends to combat a deranged park ranger from her past.
When her actors asked for clarification about when “The Ranger” takes place, writer/director Jenn Wexler told them, “it’s not about the year it takes place in, it’s about the dimension it takes place in.” Speaking to the audience before a SXSW screening of her film, Wexler added, “the dimension is ‘80s dreamland.”
Wexler is of course on the money in her accurate approximation of what the slightly sideways world of “The Ranger” feels like. Events occur in grounded reality, with nothing outwardly otherworldly. Yet there is a subtly inebriated haze flavoring the film with an intentionally weird wooziness, like the birth of a buzz following the first two beers.
Chelsea wasn’t always a teenage punk cut from Sid and Nancy’s cloth. She was a wide smiling little girl until tragedy took her outdoorsman uncle and replaced him with a mysterious park ranger. Whatever secret connects Chelsea to this unsettling man and her uncle’s death, neither she nor the movie are in a hurry to reveal it.
Chelsea’s dark past might have stayed hidden if not for a haphazard drug running initiative fronted by her bad influence boyfriend Garth. Chelsea may be a misguided misfit, but Garth is a miserable miscreant pulling her down a route she shouldn’t be on in the first place.
That path hits a point of no return when police raid a rock club and Chelsea is left literally holding Garth’s bag. Garth gets her out of the jam by stabbing a cop, and Chelsea considers shooting the officer for good measure. Instead, this aspiring Bonnie and Clyde take the drugs and three friends and opt to lay low from the law at Uncle Pete’s old cabin in the woods.
When the ranger from her childhood discovers who has returned to “his” mountain, Chelsea and her friends find they have far more to fear than they thought. The deranged ranger’s madness has minted him as a mask-less Michael Myers, citing broken regulations the way Spider-Man spouts quips as he cleans up his forest with a rifle and ax. Garth and the gang’s middle finger insults aren’t going to be sufficient to save Chelsea or themselves once the ranger sets his sadistic sights on annihilating their anarchic acts.
It’s easy to see what makes “The Ranger” attractive to indie producers and a first time feature director. The simple setup puts the project in a proven commercial market, which appeals to optimistic investors. A straightforward story, limited locations, and small slate of actors make it an economically achievable endeavor, lowering risks for a fledgling filmmaker.
From a horror fan’s perspective, it’s harder to find the appeal. Genre filmdom regularly cannibalizes itself when it comes to stalker in the woods scenarios, of which there are far too many to count. With only minor tweaks to a familiar formula, in this case making punk teens the protagonists, the arrival of another forest-set slasher doesn’t open itself up for enthusiasm on the consumer end of this transaction. “The Ranger” definitely puts its best foot forward, but that foot falls in a deep rut made by the many boots that have stomped these grounds before.
As much as I want to applaud Jenn Wexler and her collaborators for injecting more thematic meat into their movie than most body dropping horror has, there’s a conflict regarding how successful they truly are in ensuring their anti-establishment message is heard. Elaborating on the summary above, “The Ranger” opens with police attempting to arrest teens dealing an illegal drug. To avoid capture, one kid viciously knifes a cop while another steals the officer’s weapon with the initial intent of shooting him. Am I expected to pump my fist and proclaim, “f*ck the police!” in solidarity? Because in this circumstance, I’m siding with the boy in blue who doesn’t deserve death for doing his job, not the murderous drug thugs who definitely deserve jail.
I can’t say for certain if the movie means for its audience to sympathize with the core cast of crass assh*les who are all kinds of obnoxious. If we’re not, then who are the rebels we are supposed to root for?
Like the time/dimension conundrum, maybe it’s not whom we root for, but whom we root against. In that case, the ranger should earn our ire, although his colorful characterization makes him the film’s finest feature. Jeremy Holm blends a chef’s kiss mix of Michael Shannon and Patrick Warburton for the salient role, not just in physical amalgamation but also in echoing those actors’ respective intensity and dim comic absurdity.
As mentioned earlier, the ranger’s shtick involves adhering to a killer’s code where he punishes victims according to broken park rules. “The Ranger’s” moderately dark humor doesn’t quite qualify it as comedic, although there is some self-awareness to the silliness of this conceit.
Regrettably, “The Ranger” can’t keep its juggled balls of satire, slaughter, and introspective drama circling smoothly in the air. Kills lazily lapse in logic when a series of serendipitous teleportations makes “Friday the 13thPart VIII” look reasonably sequenced by comparison. There aren’t enough motivated jabs for social commentary to resonate. And Chelsea’s self-inflicted internal damage diminishes empathy earned as our heroine. In short, “The Ranger” doesn’t connect its disparate pieces cohesively.
I’m still awarding “The Ranger” a midrange review score instead of an outright unfavorable ranking because it is an acceptably average movie, not a poorly produced one. I’m also accounting for the fact that “The Ranger” was the second woodland survival thriller I screened in as many days. It’s not the film’s fault my tolerance wick was already burned to the bone, particularly when both movies additionally recycled similar beats, e.g. turning the tables on an attacker, sticking someone with a syringe by surprise, getting captured while unconscious, etc. I’ve seen so many kids, cabins, and machetes over the course of my entertainment consumption that unless Jason Voorhees is involved at this point, I’m frankly disinterested.
Hopefully you aren’t, and can glean more enjoyment from “The Ranger” for its punk rock attitude and indictment of authority. There is a personal story paralleling the punks versus park ranger premise, although the film doesn’t draw the clearest map for finding it.
Review Score: 55