SXSW 2018 Review: THE RANGER Is a Jumbled Love Letter to ‘80s Slashers

The punk horror subgenre film gets lost in the woods and in its overall translation.

Authority figures in the horror genre can be stereotypical antagonists that fully embrace their power in an abusive manner. One notable character includes Charlie Hewitt as Sheriff Hoyt from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003 remake), who falsely arrests victims for the Hewitt family to slaughter. While director Tobe Hooper sparked a franchise that was vicious in its delivery, a new perspective on this character concept of a corrupt wolf-in-sheep’s clothing is showcased in writer/director Jen Wexler’s The Ranger. Possessing a combination of elements that throwback to the ‘80s, the film delivers a playful balance of edgy opposition, nostalgia, and gore that isn’t entirely camp, nor is it straight horror. Like the punks and the theme featured in the film, The Ranger can stand as a lone wolf or as a pack alongside other stylized homage films that patch their influences lovingly on their sleeves.

Chelsea (Chloe Levine, The OA and Transfiguration) is a fairly reserved punk rocker who, within the first ten minutes of the film, is on the run from the cops with her friends. A police raid at a punk rock show leads to a frantic escape where she witnesses her boyfriend, Garth (Granit Lahu, The Sinner), stab a police officer while under the influence of their preferred drug of choice called Echo. Chelsea picks up the officer’s gun and stares down the barrel with her finger securely and confidently on the trigger, dazed in her contemplation and memory. This moment solidifies the emotional state and implication of PTSD which corresponds to the opening shots of the film, featuring her as a young girl sitting across the table from a park ranger who is attempting to manipulate her into concealing a secret they both share. That memory haunts her throughout the film, and the premise behind what really happened slowly unfolds. Chelsea and her crew of rowdy misfits retreat to her deceased uncle’s cabin in the woods to hide out, but soon encounter the ranger from her childhood, who has perverse plans of his own.

The title of the film and the trailer blatantly imply that the park ranger will be the antagonist. Played by Jeremy Holm (Mr. Robot, House of Cards), the ranger is unfortunately never entirely menacing. Hiding behind his aviator glasses and speaking minimal dialogue could have been a stronger, more frightening technique that would evoke an anxiety-inducing response. Instead, his delivery is comical with his deranged commitment to the park rules and talkative interactions with the kids that at times attempts seriousness, but comes off as more lackluster and confusing than consistent and disturbing. I wanted to either hate him, love him, or be terrified of him; but the park ranger is merely a preachy presence almost on par with the personality of The Joker. Hoping for some sort of Maniac Cop type vibe, he sadly never resonated with me as evil or even memorable, in general. The mixed signals of the ranger’s personality and style ultimately seeded the overall obscurity of the narrative, whether this film is supposed to translate as camp or a straight up slasher despite lack of blades involved.

In regards to violence and choice of death design, the kill scenes in the film are delayed, which doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose to the storyline or development of the characters. The group of punks are somewhat frustrating in their tropes, and the blatant disrespect for not only the park, but Chelsea as well, made me more than ready for them to be killed off fairly quickly. The time it takes for that to happen seems a little too prolonged because the empty space isn’t utilized to provide additional insight to their personalites or backstories. The ‘give zero fucks overall attitude comes across as one-dimensional and void of empathy for the group as a result. Although, it is refreshing to see an LGBTQ couple represented in horror. Ultimately, Chelsea is the redeeming character who centers the otherwise wavering performances around her. Levine delivers a multi-layered performance that is delicately crafted with elements of sadness, rage, and hope. The narrative of her backstory is one of tragedy and manipulation that eventually leads to a grooming attempt by the ranger. The search for identity seems to be the core of the film’s intention or theme. Chelsea decides to be on her own - unfazed or influenced by anyone despite being gunned down and caged into what others want her to be.

While the majority of the characters and the dialogue fall flat, there are some great moments of nostalgia, technique, and gore. Lighting throughout the film is attractively stylized in a sharp and candy-coated manner. The opening scene of a young Chelsea at her uncle’s cabin has an air of innocence in the way the sunlight hits the walls, while the vibrant hues become more chaotic and diverse as she gets older. The use of bright pink, blues, and greens are reminiscent of comic book style imagery; and the fractal, prismatic visuals displayed while under the influence of Echo is both effectively beautiful and disorienting. The Ranger refreshingly delivers in the gore department as well. Although there isn’t a signature style of killing, which most murderers on screen possess, it is entertaining to see how each kid gets picked off one-by-one in their own brutal way.

Writing alongside Giaco Furino, it’s clear that Wexler has a passion for the horror genre. While the narrative and dialogue are not entirely compelling, the cinematography, camera work, and rad soundtrack provide hope that future projects will be worth checking out. The Ranger provides the lost-in-the-woods-style horror trope and over-the-top style of kills that Friday the 13th fans can appreciate. The group of punk rockers will resonate with fans of Return of the Living Dead and Suburbia. The strong, complicated female lead, I believe, is a character everyone will enjoy. The various references bleed together in a love letter to the slasher genre, but it unfortunately does not leave a cinematic wound strong enough to become a cult classic among other films in the same subgenre. Regardless, I have to appreciate another female director joining the horror ranks and simply bringing her vision to the screen. Even if The Ranger doesn’t deliver up to its full potential, that feminine backbone of badass passion shines through in Chelsea’s character and in the technical aspects of Wexler’s otherwise banal narrative execution.