Who doesn’t love a good a slasher? The colorful characters and quippy one-liners. The creative kills. The unstoppable villain equipped with a weapon of choice and an eerie backstory. It seems as if slashers may be on the rise yet again, and The Ranger is one that follows the most terrifying killer of all: men in power…
…Slashing onto the scene with her feature directorial debut is Jenn Wexler, who brings a much needed, refreshing anti-authoritarian viewpoint to the slasher film. Written by Wexler and Giaco Furino, The Ranger tells the story of rebel without a cause, Chelsea (Chloe Levine) and her punk bandmates who must go on the run after one of them stabs a cop. Forced by her dickhead boyfriend, Garth (Granit Lahu), to stay at Chelsea’s childhood cabin, the group heads there for the weekend. Unbeknownst to them is the danger that lurks nearby the cabin in the form of the local park Ranger (Jeremy Holm), a by the book psycho who hasn’t forgotten Chelsea after all these years.
The Ranger fires off with a rather uncomfortable scenario in which a young Chelsea (Jete Laurence) is being told by The Ranger that what happened to her father is their little secret. Flash forward a decade or so and Chelsea has grown into a pink haired badass with a middle finger held high for all of society to see. This is a punk rock slasher with attitude, and Chelsea is our hardcore driver straight into primal hell. Levine is mesmerizing in the role, bringing a fierce though vulnerable presence to a character that pretends she fits in with her friends, but as The Ranger likes to remind her, is a lone wolf. Wexler gives us a fascinating character made more so not because she is some typical, virginal, perfect final girl, but because she is flawed and, most importantly, a human being who is struggling to burst free from the society that has tossed her out, and the men who seek to control her.
In fact, Wexler and Furino smartly present all of their characters as well rounded individuals who fit into slasher tropes, yet avoid becoming straight up stereotypes. Most notable are Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weiler), an interracial gay couple, who, under an average director, would probably have their sexuality become the focus of their character, but in The Ranger, is simply a small part of who they are, as it should be. Horror films have desperately needed inclusion presented in this way for a while, and it’s great to see. You also have Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez), aka the “dumb drug addict”, who isn’t treated by the filmmakers as dumb at all, but rather a free spirit. All of the characters in The Ranger are treated fairly and like real people who may have their flaws, but are extremely relatable in the way they care about each other or see the world. Except for Garth. He's just an ass. Which is the point.
In our current America, there is a huge outcry from youth against totalitarian authority, making The Ranger the perfect villainous embodiment of close-minded adults attempting to snuff out rebellion. While Chelsea’s friends live life freely and without rules, The Ranger, and even Chelsea to some degree, live by a different code: The animalistic laws of nature. Holm is intimidating perfection as The Ranger, forceful in the delivery of his pro-authority ideals and strict punishment for those who disobey. If you thought Jason Voorhees was a prude with his anti-sex and drugs stance, think again. Slasher films often boil heroine versus villain down to good vs evil, but Wexler takes a unique approach, transforming the dynamic into freedom versus oppression. At no fault of Holm’s, The Ranger character can be a little too on the nose and unnatural as he spouts rules at kids just before dealing a killing blow, but it’s never enough to detract from the pulse-pounding violence taking place on screen.
The Ranger is like an aggressive forest fire, and once it gets going, it’s pure madness. The violence hits hard and frequently, coming at our characters with a primal savagery that left me stunned. Escalation is the word of the day in The Ranger, a film which gets more and more fucked up as it goes, unexpectedly taking us close to Buffalo Bill hide-the-penis fashion show territory. This film is loaded with “holy shit” moments and enough eye-popping gore that it should come with a sign that reads: warning, eyes may fall out of head. The carnage of The Ranger feels like a battle cry from Wexler. She is here to fuck your shit up, and all you can do it sit there and take it.
Like our Warriors wannabe characters though, The Ranger isn’t perfect. Despite the heavy handedness of the themes, there’s a little too much coincidence playing into the film at times in order to keep our characters separated. For a film that so successfully smashes typical slasher character archetypes, the filmmakers tend to follow other tropes a little too closely, though to be fair, at least provides some suspect reasoning. And while you’ll never find me complaining about character development, The Ranger spends so much time building its characters, that by the time the bloodshed does begin, it happens so swiftly that there isn’t much room to build up genuine suspense with each death. It’s as if the filmmakers are anxious to get to the finale, leaving most of the kills in the film feeling short-lived and rushed.
Still, it’s easy to understand why Wexler and Furino may have been in a rush to get to the ending, as it will likely go down as one of the most savage, gore-soaked finales of the year. The Ranger left me walking away with my jaw hanging. You’ll think twice next time before fucking with that dorky looking park ranger, or that punk-rock chick with pink hair. The Ranger may lack the sort of chills and unnerving atmosphere we typically crave in our slasher films, but more than makes up for it with rich themes, and a fierce bite that’s going to sting for a while like poison ivy.
The Ranger premieres on Shudder on May 9th.
By Matt Konopka