[Review] The Ranger
Can a movie be called a slasher if the weapon of choice is a gun? Such was one of the questions I asked myself as I watched Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger. Ostensibly a throwback to the 80s, when slashers were a dime a dozen, this punk-rock-infused ode is technically well-made and full of fun performances, but it doesn’t do much with what it has.
An ambiguous cold open showcases The Ranger (Jeremy Holm) waxing poetically about wolves and what they mean to mother nature to a young girl named Chelsea (Jeté Laurence, who was amazing in Pet Sematary). “They’re fighters. Just like you. You were a fighter today. A wolf. Just the kind of spirit this park needs,” The Ranger tells her as he chops the crusts off her sandwich with a large machete. Outside, police lights flash and The Ranger, looking somber, says, “You’re a wolf, Chelsea. Don’t you ever forget that.”
The action is immediately thrust into a loud and raucous punk rock concert, where Chelsea (Chloë Levine), her hair now neon pink, dances in the corner while her friends separate lines of a pink-colored drug called Echo to snort. The police raid the club, everyone flees and Chelsea is caught by an officer who aims his gun at her, but her boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu) leaps out of nowhere and stabs him. Chelsea grabs the gun and stands over the downed cop as he begins to call in their descriptions. She seems ready to pull the trigger and we see flashbacks to young Chelsea doing the same, but she can’t do it. Instead, she hops into the waiting van with Garth and her friends, an adorable gay couple Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weiler) and an unconscious, blue-haired Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez).
They need a plan and a place to lay low and luckily Chelsea has a family cabin up in the mountains, where she used to stay with her late uncle (played in flashbacks by Larry Fessenden!) in the summers. The place where The Ranger patrolled. She is reluctant, but there’s no other choice. Along the way, the meet The Ranger at a convenience store. He slowly starts to recognize the grown-up Chelsea and realizes she’s no longer his little wolf. He gruffly issues them warnings about respecting nature and how he’s in charge of the forest. But, of course the punks, who scream “fuck the police” and flip their middle finger to authority, can’t help themselves. The burn pyres, tag trees and litter with impunity. Then, a rifle blast blows up their boombox and Amber’s ear.
It’s hunting season and this time the punks are on the run.
I wanted to love The Ranger. On paper, it seems like everything I would absolutely adore. Punk rock ethos, a fun and realistic gay couple, an 80s slasher vibe, bright colors, fun practical effects work, a rough-and-tumble, down-and-dirty scrappy production. All of the ingredients are there. And it’s filmed perfectly by James Siewert (he also brought stylish visuals to The Depraved) who infuses bright colors with the more naturalistic setting and films the Echo-fused haze that lingers over certain scenes with visual style. Unfortunately, it spends too much time on characters that, frankly, were painfully unlikable and under-written…outside of my gay babies who must be protected at all cost.
By focusing the narrative on the punks, the movie wants us to embrace the “fuck the police,” anti-establishment mentality. The fact they murdered a cop in a drug-fueled haze is eventually glossed over after being a kind of MacGuffin that sets the narrative in motion. Most of the internal conflict between Chelsea and her boyfriend Garth is centered on her subconscious desire to run to authority figures in times of crisis; a fact he eventually equates to her relationship with The Ranger. And when first meeting The Ranger, they equate his authoritarian rule over the forest to fascism and the police they just killed.
The problem is…I actually found myself siding with the murderous Ranger for most of the movie.
At least I could understand part of his motivations. Chelsea’s friends are a pack of pretty obnoxious…well, punks. For example, Garth is a jerk who completely ignores Chelsea’s moderate requests of, like, not smoking in the house or basically attempting to not set the forest on fire. He’s a caricature of anti-establishment to the point of anarchy. But he also flirts unabashedly with Amber, a character who is basically reduced to The Blue-Haired Girl and doesn’t have much to work with.
Chelsea could be interesting. Her internal struggle, reignited by seeing The Ranger, is her struggle with who she is and who the people around her perceive her to be. Her narrative path desperately wants to explore the idea that she is a wolf, pretending to be something she’s not in the city. But it doesn’t completely sell it, for me. Her character feels almost like a tabula rasa and it’s Chloë’s that makes her so fascinating to watch. All of these archetypal and unlikable characters would be okay, if we didn’t have to spend 40 minutes watching them destroy nature before the violence erupts.
On the positive side, Jeremy Holm’s performance is devilishly fun and just this side of over-the-top camp perfection. But his appearance feels at odds with the more serious nature of the story. It’s an odd juxtaposition of a serious, survivalist narrative with a campy villain with a toothy grin who, at one point, howls, naked save for a wolf skin. There’s hints of something potentially more supernatural, with pagan symbols made of rocks and Holm’s almost preternatural 80s villain abilities. But it doesn’t coalesce into something great…just breezy fun.
What I did absolutely love, though, was the presentation of the two queer punks. Their relationship feels so natural and lived in. Their chemistry is fantastic and real and the way they just lay on each other and almost meld into one person brought a smile to my face. Their nonchalant relationship is a huge step forward in queer genre representation and proves there’s nothing more punk rock than well realized gay characters.
Ultimately, great practical effects, fantastic cinematography, a fun cast and a banging punk rock score help succeed where a stingy script fails. It’s a solid little scrappy thriller that I actually enjoyed more on a second viewing. It’s just a little too much punk kids and not as much punk rock as I was hoping.