The Ranger, is – on its surface – a vibrant, vicious throwback to 80’s slashers with a unique visual flair. This is like saying punk subculture is – on its surface – people in leather jackets with a lot of piercings and even more product in their radically dyed hair. It’s an easy label to slap on something that is actively and enthusiastically doing its level best to kick your labels in the face.
The hook on Jenn Wexler’s feature directorial debut is baited well. A handful of teenage punk fugitives flee to a cabin in the woods only to run head-long into a malevolently dedicated park ranger. The line between these kids, who have near-zero regard for anyone in a pressed uniform, and the titular Ranger, a stickler for the rules to the point of gratuitous bloodshed, could not be drawn any clearer.
Working from a script by Giaco Furino and herself, Wexler directs with one of the most interesting eyes I’ve seen in a minute or two, using camerawork, color and pacing to exaggerate the clash between conflicting worlds of chaos and order. This is greatly assisted by Abbey Killheffer, who at times gleefully edits the film like a small child with a straight razor. I mean this in the nicest possible way. Portions of the movie are cut with the rhythm of a punk rock anthem, and it pairs well with the subject matter and soundtrack.
Leading the cast is Chloe Levine, who, with recent turns on Mr. Robot and The Defenders, is deservedly well on her way to going places. Her role as Chelsea is meaty, with plenty of nuances provided in the form of an appreciation for common courtesies her uber-rebellious brethren don’t share. This makes her something of an outcast among outcasts and that’s an enjoyable dynamic to watch.
Jeremy Holm plays The Ranger with a cheerful and meticulous maliciousness reminiscent of Dan Stevens in The Guest, though much of David’s creep factor was embedded in the prospect of such a person being mistakenly invited into your home. The Ranger’s eeriness is instead intertwined with the specter of indifferent, jackbooted authoritarianism violently intruding on your space. In either case, there’s something chilling about a man ending you with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.
The rest of the cast is rounded out with a semi-traditional slasher line-up of People Born to Die. Granit Lahu as Garth, Bubba Weiler as Abe, Jeremy Pope as Jerk, and Amanda Grace Benitez as Amber all range from intentionally unlikeable to genuinely sympathetic as needed, but their individual arcs aren’t as important as what they collectively represent; braggadocious babes-in-the-woods who have spitefully bitten the Powers-That-Be only to discover the Powers-That-Be have sharper teeth.
I readily admit I’m, at best, a tourist of punk subculture. I greatly appreciate the general aesthetic, but I don’t live there. That said, it’s impossible to discuss The Ranger in any meaningful way without also talking about the core ideologies of the punk movement.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the brilliant satire of punk mentality we saw in Return of the Living Dead. Suicide’s hilarious declaration that his attire is “a way of life,” while technically accurate, was a send-up of aggressively defiant counterculture for its own sake, though Wexler does play with that here as well. Chelsea’s too-punk-to-function cohorts revel in casual littering as a sneering finger to The Man, flaunting how little they care so exuberantly they often swing all the way back to walking, talking tropes. They grasp the general idea of punk as counterculture and benefit from its facilitation of familial bonding among the disenfranchised, but they’re also kind of missing the point. In fact, this theme of sheep-in-wolves’ clothing bleating futilely at the moon penetrates the movie to a point that would venture sharply into the realm of spoilers. (There will come a day; I’m not done with you by half, The Ranger)
The spirit of punk and what that means undoubtedly varies wildly from end of the subculture to the other, but to my understanding, it’s the idea of self-empowerment through the total embracement of a personal identity that some people – maybe most people – may not be willing to accept. And where the movie itself is concerned, I think a prime example of this is a homosexual relationship that, for once, is allowed to simply exist. Nobody points at it. It’s not haphazardly exposited in clumsy dialogue or a point of contention. It just is, without bravado or fanfare, with no need for explanation or apology. And when you look at the idea of punk through that lens, it becomes something everyone can relate to because everyone just wants to be allowed to exist in their own unique way. The real horror in The Ranger is the threat of a callous and stringent agent of arbitrary ‘normalcy’ extinguishing that unique existence simply because you’re not following ‘The Rules’.
While The Ranger is indeed a throwback to slashers of yore, Wexler doesn’t strictly adhere to ‘The Rules’ as established by her predecessors. The actual Slasher is not a traditional Slasher. The Final Girl is not a traditional Final Girl. Wexler’s very much doing her own thing here with a reckless regard for whether or not the viewer approves and heed my words, watching her continue to shed the trappings of tradition is going to be something to behold.
For many of the reasons listed above, and a few that would be a little too spoiler-specific, The Ranger isn’t going to be for everyone. But it’s not trying to be. At all. It’s an unapologetic movie fully confident in its own identity and central themes of self-acceptance and empowerment. This probably isn’t the correct nomenclature but, in that way, The Ranger is one of the most punk horror movies that has ever punked. It’s like a hot pink mohawk – if you’re not into it, it’s not meant for you anyway.