Horror and punk rock should be better bedfellows. For whatever reason, metal tends to copulate with our beloved genre more often than its angrier, rougher cousin. Only Green Room (read our review) and Return of the Living Dead (still the go-to punk rock horror movie) immediately spring to mind when considering the times punk has taken its place.
All that is about to change with The Ranger, the wild, explosive, brilliantly-conceived debut feature from writer-director Jenn Wexler. Starring The Transfiguration‘s breakout star Chloe Levine as a lost, pink-haired little brat who’s fallen in with a bad crowd following the death of her uncle, it situates itself in a world many of us will recognise, and populates it with characters we can both root for and hate in equal measure.
Kicking off in the kind of gross, sweaty show we claim to be too old for yet can’t stop attending, following an eerie prologue with the titular authority figure, the flick sets off at a lively place and rarely lets up for the next 80 odd minutes. It’s a road trip movie of sorts, taking place mostly in an out-of-the-way cabin surrounded by the lush, green countryside amid which most of Green Room‘s atrocities took place.
Levine is Chelsea, a good-natured but easily swayed young woman who’s more of a tourist in her own life than an active participant. She suggests hiding out in her family’s old cabin following a run-in with the law that leaves her friend group with blood on their hands and cops on their tail. Once they’re out in the wilderness, however, they soon realise there are worse fates than going to prison.
The Ranger‘s styling, similar to ROTLD, is impeccable, its characters boasting eye-wateringly cool leather jackets emblazoned with patches for bands even the most ardent punk fan will want to jot down. Levine’s curly, wild pink hair is immediately eye-catching, and the addition of a quietly, but assuredly, gay couple is sweetly revolutionary. But it’s Granit Lahu as her boyfriend Garth who makes an impression for all the wrong reasons.
Skinny, mouthy, and suspiciously confident in his own abilities as a leader, he’s the only member of their little group of misfits who looks like he’s playing dress up (purposely, one suspects, considering how much of a wannabe tough guy Garth is). When he picks up a gun and points it at a cop, it’s obvious Garth won’t last the movie. Watching him cower and fall apart in the third act is hugely satisfying. He’s a horrible creation.
Before that, though, there’s plenty of brainstorming possible band names and witty back-and-forth repartee to make these characters feel lived in and real. They’re those kids you see at shows. Hell, they might even be you and your friends (as producer, and punk rock patriot, Heather Buckley proudly claims herself). The care put into recreating this world is clear in every tiny detail, every safety pin, every stud. There are no costumes here, just a way of life.
While Wexler’s well-drawn group blasts out punk tunes — The Ranger has a dope ass soundtrack, the kind that makes you want to run out and immediately make a playlist — in their battered old van, the titular antagonist chooses easy listening. At first, it’s unclear whether he’s creepy or just a square, but it’s not long before The Ranger’s no-nonsense approach to the rules is made abundantly clear.
The flick is a defiantly old-school slasher so the kills come hard, fast, and bloody. Veteran TV actor Jeremy Holm (House of Cards, Mr. Robot) looks like a cross between punk icon Henry Rollins, Vice Principal Krubbs from Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, and John Cena if he ever turned heel as the unmasked (another interesting choice) killer. He’s simply a hyper-focused psychopath who’s completely convinced of his authority.
In short, he’s The Man, and his attitude is nimbly summed up when one of the terrified kids demands to know “What’s your deal, man?” (that could actually be the tagline for the movie, too). Buckley sees The Ranger as militant straight edge, unwilling to let anybody else have any fun drinking or doing bad shit. I don’t quite read him that way, possibly due to being straight edge myself (most sXe types aren’t that intense — usually), but the idea that The Ranger is The Man is a clever twist on a well-worn trope.
(Side note: please cast Rollins, Toby Morse, Ian MacKaye, CM Punk, Dan Smith, and Davey Havok as a straight edge group hunting drug dealers. Like a modern-age Monster Squad with better clothes and cleaner teeth).
The Ranger is no Ghostface, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger. He’s not killing indiscriminately or under flimsy pretenses such as not getting any sex or really loving knife-play. Instead, Wexler’s horrifying killer is a regular dude with a job to do, who can’t keep things kosher with these damn kids lighting fires and playing music so loud it disrupts the ambience of the woodland.
Holm is brilliant as the cool, calculating killer, with Levine his ideal foil. Wexler cast her off that memorable Transfiguration performance, but here the up-and-comer is given room to properly flex her acting muscles, whether she’s bickering with her boyfriend or fighting off a would-be murderer. Chelsea is a bad ass heroine, a flawed and fierce Final Girl with grit and nuance. She doesn’t always make the smartest decisions, but she’s still empathetic.
As a smart, tough kid who’s been through a lot, Chelsea stands in direct opposition to her tormentor’s blinkered view on life. They’re at odds without Wexler needing to establish her heroine as a perfect, untouched virgin, or her villain as a wild-eyed maniac. The Ranger is further enlivened by committed performances from the rest of its small cast of mostly unknowns and a simple, well-established premise.
Films are said to have punk rock sensibilities all the time, but The Ranger‘s are both well-established and authentic. It’s cool but not too cool, like Green Room‘s obnoxious little brother — or, more accurately, sister — that you can’t help but warm to. The thing is gorgeously captured, particularly in the shots of the surrounding forestland, and the influence of Fessenden, whose Glass Eye Pix produced, is evident in its grittier moments.
As a modern slasher, The Ranger is gory, witty, unpredictable, and fresh. It’s a great calling card for its writer-director and star, marking out both Wexler and Levine as ones to seriously watch in future. Hopefully they partner up again shortly for something just as bad ass.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Jenn Wexler
Writer(s): Jenn Wexler, Giaco Furino
Stars: Chloe Levine, Jeremy Holm, Granit Lahu, Larry Fessenden
Release date: August 17, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Glass Eye Pix
Length: 87 minutes