starring Chloe Levine, Granit Lahu, Jeremy Pope, Jeremy Holm
written by Jenn Wexler, Giaco Furino
directed by Jenn Wexler
by Walter Chaw Jenn Wexler's hyphenate debut is anchored by a tremendous performance from Chloe Levine--good enough that it peanut-butters over some of The Ranger's thematic gaps, its troubles with pacing and its identity crisis. The picture opens well, with a group of punks--of which Levine's Chelsea is a reluctant member--raising hell and eventually killing a cop. Chelsea takes her buddies to her uncle's cabin to hide. We're introduced to the cabin in the film's prologue as a stolid Ranger (Jeremy Holm) comforts young Chelsea (Jete Laurence) about something terrible while she nibbles on a sandwich. He compares her to a wolf, because she's "a fighter." Once removed from the urban environment, Chelsea finds her pals obnoxious: smoking inside, setting fires, painting trees, and generally being disrespectful of the woods in which she was raised. Her boyfriend, Garth (Granit Lahu), is especially the kind of lost youth who desperately deserves to get drop-kicked into a canyon.
Then the Ranger recognizes Chelsea. And he makes it his mission to protect her while upholding the state's rules governing public land use. For his part, the Ranger plays like a Patrick Warburton impersonation. He's a caricature of a specific type of rugged macho asshole lampooned by Nick Offerman. He's familiar and unmemorable. Herein lies the groundwork for a Dr. Giggles sort of thing where the Ranger spouts rules and regulations concerning campfires and stuff, but alas; it feels a lot like there's an opportunity lost here to add to the slasher pantheon. Without a compelling villain, what's left is Chelsea mustering the resources to fight back, to hide, to keep going as her friends start dropping. It becomes less about a young woman reliving her trauma and working through PTSD, and more your standard Spam-in-a-cabin conceit. The confusion, I think, has something to do with how much tension Levine gives Chelsea, and how little complexity there is in the script for her to actually work with. The Ranger is a straight line.
Chelsea's gradual awakening to the wolf she is in the Ranger's estimation is the ostensible thread that holds The Ranger together, but there's no real surprise to the fate of her dear uncle (Larry Fessenden in flashback) lo those summers ago, nor is there any real art to the sequence of events leading up to the climactic showdown between Chelsea and the Ranger. I wonder if it wouldn't have been the better choice not to have them at odds at all--the picture certainly appears to be going in that direction. But there's a weird conservative stream in The Ranger, and it doesn't jibe with the movie's bracing acceptance of race and sexuality. It seems to be trying as desperately as Chelsea to be punk only to realize, like she does, that it's not. The film ultimately, though perhaps accidentally, takes the side of the Ranger in implying that rules are important, family is important, and everything else is deviant and irritating. Worst of all, it almost decides that Chelsea, if she's a wolf, is a domesticated one.
I liked very much when her friends Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weiler) tell each other they love each other before going off in different directions; I liked it considerably less when both are murdered ugly. There's a certain responsibility that comes with representation that finally gets as little attention as Chelsea's personal evolution. (Testament to Levine that we wonder about it all the same.) Stopping short of saying the film is insensitive, I am suggesting that The Ranger would have benefited from a decision to either offend, or to champion representation and a young woman's triumph over abuse. Alas, it decides not to make any decisions at all. Not campy enough on the one side, not weighty enough on the other, The Ranger is great craft, great gore, scant substance, and that one sterling performance in search of a better movie.