Review: The Ranger (USA 2018)

The Ranger, directed by Jenn Wexler and co-written by Wexler and Giaco Furino, is a fun, tight, modern indie slasher, in the tradition of “roll up your sleeves” regional splatter flicks like The Mutilatorand “punks vs. hicks” schlock like Punk Vacation.  While the film suffers a bit from bipolar plotting and tone, solid performances from leads Chloe Levine and Jeremy Holm keep things on track and make for a satisfying splatter flick with an emotional core.

Levine plays Chelsea, a nice girl caught up in a bad situation, slumming it in the city with her punk boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu), a low level drug dealer.  When the police raid a concert, Garth knifes a cop, and the two are forced to lie low with their friends in Chelsea’s uncle’s cabin.  Unfortunately, that cabin is in a state park and the local ranger has a long history with Chelsea, as well as some serious mental issues.

Levine really does yeoman’s work making Chelsea into a believably sympathetic character – she’s troubled, and she’s a bit of a poseur, but she’s smart, and strong, and likable.  Her friends are mostly just garden variety assholes – a skanky bubblehead, a gay couple obsessed with starting a band – but Garth is something else, a genuine dangerous dirtbag.  He’s Timothée Chalamet in Ladybird a few years down the road with no money and less morals – you can see why Chelsea would fall for him, even though you know he’s trouble.

Jeremy Holm, as the titular Ranger, on the other hand, is a creep for the ages.  Holm plays the ranger as slow, almost ponderous, using his Warburton-esque physique for both comedy and menace, and one of those guys who’s just OFF in some subtle way.  If it weren’t for the title and marketing giving things away, I might have thought the character would go a different direction until well into the film.  However, once The Ranger goes full horror, that thoughtful performance shifts as Holm goes full Freddy Krueger, and moves into wacky slasher territory before circling back around to a more serious survival drama.

Despite that flaw, The Ranger is well-constructed and shows its influences without wearing them on its sleeve.  The film is 100% in Texas Chainsaw Massacre mode, and also shares a lot of DNA with “spam in a cabin” films like Cabin Fever and Evil Dead (I even saw some “Fake Shemps” listed in the credits).  But unlike films like Cabin in the Woods, The Ranger never breaks kayfabe and quotes at the audience.

The film’s atmosphere is supported by some lovely scenery – the Hudson Valley where it shot is my occasional hiking ground, and The Ranger ably captures the Northeastern deep  woods feel of heavily forested hills and fire towers.  The filmmakers also lay on a terrific score, with a murderer’s row of punk bands including Rotten UK, The Grim, Black Lungs, The Nerv, Dayglo Abortions, and others contrasting nicely with the ranger’s old school theme of “The Most Beautiful Girl.”

The Ranger is a slow burn, but never boring – audiences looking for a modern slasher that captures the feel of the classics should definitely check it out.

2 ½ out of 4 stars (Good).  The Ranger opens tonight in New York City at the IFC Center.


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