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Ranger, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A slasher that goes back to the 1980s woods to great effect."
5 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: "The Ranger" is a damn fine 1980s throwback slasher that does every facet of the genre just a little better than you might expect. That's not necessarily enough to earn a recommendation - enough movies are made about folks getting cut up with an axe every year that even with a 95% failure rate, that's a fair amount of "pretty decent" - but Jenn Wexler hits the sweet spot here, making a movie that's got something on its mind aside from the genre itself but still manages to be bloody and entertaining before everything else.

It's sometime in the 1980s,Chelsea (Chloe Levine) is in her early twenties and into punk rock, in one of those situations where the line between a band and its hangers-on is kind of fluid. That's how she ends up in a van with boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu), "Jerk" (Jeremy Pope), Abe (Bubba Weiler), and Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez), running from the cops after a whole drug-gun-car situation gets messy. She's told them that she inherited a cabin upstate, and they immediately figure that would be a great place to hide out. It soon seem like a less-than-great idea - her friends don't know the first thing about the outdoors, even without a ranger (Jeremy Holm) warning them that the area around the national park isn't same. Kind of unnervingly, he's the same ranger that was there the last time she was up, finding her after her Uncle Pete (Larry Fessenden) died suddenly.

Director Jenn Wexler and her co-writer Giaco Furino give the audience and the punks some getting-to-know-you time before the carnage starts, but when it does, the filmmakers have an enjoyably traditional take on it: They're (mostly) in the woods, the weapons are basic rather than supernatural, and they leave ugly, bloody wounds that give the kids obstacles and let the killer hit people twice. It's not winkingly self-referential, and it's not terribly subversive; it's a maniac hunting young people down, executed by folks who know their gore, working better because Wexler and her crew edit in a way that continuously tightens the noose after giving the audience just enough lay of the land to figure out just how dangerous a situation can be. It's sharp filmmaking that knows how these movies work.

The thing is, it's got just enough happening underneath that the ritualistic pleasures of the slasher aren't all the movie has going for it. It's no mistake that Chelsea and her friends are punks specifically, and their pursuer's soundtrack is as aggressively non-punk as you can get and still be a pretty good song, and it lets the filmmakers build a strong generational element to the plot's violence. The Ranger runs on a demand for respect from kids who disdain one's square-ness until they need reliability, a different sort of underlying morality for this sort of film, fetishizing something other than sexual purity, and letting the audience feel like the punks have something coming even as they're squarely against the title character. There's a bit of ickiness on that count, but if it's not kept on the fringe (the music choice is nothing if not direct here), it's an expansion of the rest of the film's themes, not a tack-on.

It puts the focus on Chelsea in a way that gives Chloe Levine plenty to do and more depth to play with than a horror heroine often gets. Levine gets to show off how capable Chelsea is from the start, even as she's playing being the smart one against her own self-doubt. She gets to play the level, reasonable contrast to the more broadly played friends as well as the title character, but she always comes across as the most interesting, compelling person on-screen. Which is not to diminish the job done by Jeremy Holm, who gives his character's big, exaggerated persona a deadpan charm that has just the right amount of obsessive mania to it. Odds that this guy is going to be sympathetic are long, but he's always entertaining without being hammy enough to undermine the thrills.

None of this is necessarily a lot more than any slasher film does, but few of them have every element pulling in the right direction the way that "The Ranger" does, or have as strong a point of view without seeming like they're trying to be something else first. It's a horror movie that stands out for just being a good horror movie, and that's a pleasure to see.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32130&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/01/18 13:30:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.

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