Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Six stunningly attractive but vapid teenagers are driving through the middle of nowhere when they’re stopped by unexpected car trouble. In the case of Downrange, they get a flat tire. Three of them decide to sit leaning on the car while it’s jacked up as the dreamy Jeff (Jason Tobias) changes the tire. When he gets the flat off, a shell casing tinkles onto the road. The next shot kills him. The shooter takes out another teen before the four remaining get to cover. The rest of the movie follows them as they try to survive. It’s not very good.
It’s a familiar setup. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and more than a few other great horror films start by trapping their characters in the middle of the nowhere with vehicle trouble. All of those movies do a lot of things better than Downrange. One is to characterize about the killer. Downrange obstinately refuses to give the audience anything more than a few shots of him drinking water, reloading, or point of view shots through his scope. The question of why he’s doing this isn’t ever answered.
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface and his family have resorted to cannibalism as their jobs in the meatpacking factory disappeared. In The Hills Have Eyes, the killers were mutated by the government using their land for nuclear testing. Their angry and lashing out against the way the world has shafted them. They never make it to relatable, but Leatherface and Jupiter have clear motives and a political stance: the rural poor are being mistreated.
In Downrange, I can guess. Maybe the shooter is a soldier returned from Iraq who’s suffering from PTSD. Or maybe the shooter is a white supremacist using his victims (two of the teenagers are people of color) as practice for a planned larger attack. Or maybe the shooter is sick of people using his road because his daughter got run over by someone speeding. But without evidence in the film, any of these theories, each supporting a vastly different ideology, could be true. Instead of meaning something, Downrange means nothing. It feels especially empty in light of the raging gun-control debate in the U.S., where the movie is being released.
The characters suffer from a similar vagueness. Outside of the lead Jodi (Kelly Connaire) wanting to make it to her sister’s surprise sweet sixteen birthday party and Eric’s (Rod Hernandez) random speech about a miscarriage, the characters aren’t developed. They are going from a mystery starting point (a college?) to a mystery finishing point. Their students but not of specific subjects. There are at least ten instance of a character saying something and then immediately repeating it. Asinine things like, “Could you live knowing that maybe we can stop him and didn’t? Because I can’t. I can’t.” “Shit. Ah shit.” “He could’ve gotten a signal. He could have.” “I can’t. I can’t.” The second time, the actors change their inflection to communicate how shell-shocked, upset, or frightened they are. Once or maybe twice, the technique would’ve been powerful, but it’s overused.
The scripts issues don’t end there either. Aside from repeating themselves, the characters mostly yell melodramatic cliches like, “We have to try!” “What the hell do you want me to say!? I’m sorry!” “You never know!” What’s remarkable in this film is how similar each characters voice is. It doesn’t matter who yelled “We have to try!” It’s so bland that any of the characters could’ve said it and it would’ve had the same impact. None. Aside from Keren (Stephanie Pearson) none of the characters have a history, and her history is that she knows enough about guns to provide exposition.
The directing has issues as well. It’s disappointing considering that Ryûhei Kitamura directed Midnight Meat Train, which was much better than Downrange. The main issue with the directing is that Kitamura sets up rules and then breaks them. The characters are pinned down, and if they move beyond the SUV they’re hiding behind, the killer will shoot them. It’s simple, and scary, but the movie doesn’t follow the rules. The killer only takes shots at them when it makes sense for the plot. Sparing characters when it’s convenient, not when they’ve saved themselves or the killer has made a mistake, sucks all of the tension out of the movie.
Without a coherent ideology, compelling characters, or suspense, Downrange leaves viewers not rooting for the teens or the killer, but for the film to mercifully end.
Downrange will be available exclusively on Shudder starting April 26, 2018.
WICKED RATING: 3/10
Director(s): Ryûhei Kitamura
Writer(s): Joey O’Bryan, Ryûhei Kitamura
Stars: Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez
Release date: April 26th, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Genco
Length: 90 minutes