A car swerves to the side of a country road after its rear driver's side tire explodes. Todd (Rod Hernandez) and Sara (Alexa Yeames) – a young couple carpooling with a group of college classmates who pitched in gas money – jump out to assess the damage. Thankfully, replacing the popped rubber with the SUV's spare should only take around fifteen minutes (twenty tops), and the boys are willing to bet their better halves they can swap it quicker (for the invaluable relationship currency of "bragging rights"). However, if that all went to plan, Ryûhei Kitamura's Downrange would be the most boring short ever made. Instead, the heat gets to Jodi (Kelly Connaire) and Keren (Stephanie Pearson), while Eric (Anthony Kirlew) decides to take a piss in the bushes. Sara tries to get a great group selfie (though the lack of signal makes that tough) while Todd rests. So, the hard work is left to Jeff (Jason Tobias), a friendly hunk who doesn't mind helping out.
That is, until Jeff spots a spent rifle shell. Then the shots ring out, and the boy’s brains are splattered all over the pavement, followed by another bullet through one of the girls' eyes. Suddenly, what should've been an easy bit of roadside maintenance becomes a battle for survival, as Kitamura's horror picture transmutes into this strange hybrid of Phone Booth and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. We can practically hear John Larroquette intoning, "it was all the more tragic in that they were young", as the kids look for any sort of shelter from the sniper's bullets. The maniac is obviously well trained and able to conceal his person, as he's nowhere to be found. But as army brat Keren points out, he must be using an older rifle, with a silencer, as the bullets aren't able to penetrate the hull of the truck. As long as they stay hidden behind the metal beast, they should be safe. Only question is: how long can they last, and will the gunmen ever let his prey leave while they still draw breath?
In terms of a story summary, that's pretty much it for Downrange. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the movie's script – which was penned by the director and co-writer Joey O'Bryan – works like gangbusters in terms of mounting suspense, as the tension ratchets up quickly and then never really lets off. A consummate stylist, Kitamura employs split diopter close-ups, deep focus, and numerous wide shots to make us feel both intimate yet isolated with these beautiful, terrified folks in the middle of nowhere. They're nothing more than human fish in a barrel, mounds of flesh whose bodies Kitamura's camera zooms in and out of, utilizing rather goopy, gory CGI SFX to concoct gaping wounds. To call Downrange a pure formal exercise wouldn't be out of line, but when the director employs every visual trick in his bag, you can't really fault him for it.
Thankfully, Kitamura and O'Bryan flesh out these victims rather well (so to speak), and make them folks we actually want to see survive. Granted, they do this in the most melodramatic fashion possible – a scene where the group discovers it’s one of the deceased's birthday and sing their corpse a song becomes bizarrely comedic instead of moving – but the characterizations are still pretty solid and sympathetic. Nevertheless, these gorgeous meat bags are nothing more than just that: ample targets for the sniper to plug holes in, tear to pieces via car crashes (as a second vehicle enters the story, only to be quickly decimated), and set on fire. The sound design is amped up to accent the gore, as bullets connect with splattery impact, before bodies hit the pavement in a wet heap. Downrange is obviously meant to be an extremely visceral experience, engaging you with an almost cartoonish level of bodily harm.
This premise isn't necessarily a novel one – as on top of Phone Booth, Ti West debuted with the Delaware hunting fright, Trigger Man, while Mickey Keating recently took us on a similar tour of Carnage Park. Due to its gleefully mean-spirited violence, Downrange is easily the best of the bunch, pushing the boundaries of both good taste and its single locale set up. Kitamura's crafted a nihilistic companion piece to his own No One Lives, eviscerating people without a thought for either their or the audience’s well-being. Yet that's what a great horror filmmaker does – they engage us on a primal level using their own savage magic. Even with a third act that becomes downright ludicrous, Downrange is an impressive 90-minute atrocity exhibition that even cues the end credits with a troublingly black joke. Why they didn’t title it Trigger Warning remains a total mystery.
Downrange is available now to stream exclusively on Shudder.