April 25, 2018 Downrange (Movie Review)
Without “witty groups of passively attractive, culturally-diverse twenty-somethings on vacation,” the Horror genre might have died in the 1970s. Stuff a sensitive male model type, an aggressive bimbo, a naïve good girl, a quiet wildcard, a token black guy, and a doofy stoner into an SUV, hurl them into a sylvan wood to camp, then kill all but one or two of them, one-or-two-at-a-time at the hands of an enigmatic lunatic, and the studio will probably recoup the budget at the very least. However, when the recipe calls for all of the aforementioned ingredients, but the chef decides to buck convention during the preparation and concoct something more clever, dinnertime becomes much more interesting. Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus 2000, Midnight Meat Train 2008) is one such chef and his new film, Downrange, is one such dish.
A concerted effort by production studios RIM Entertainment, Genco Films, and Eleven Arts, Downrange will exclusively be released on Thursday, April 26, 2018 through Shudder. The plot of Downrange is simple: a group of faceless young folks get pinned down on a country road by a hidden sharpshooter in a ghillie suit. The calculating sniper shoots out a tire on their SUV and when they all pile out, carnage ensues and does not let up until the credits roll. Remanded to a four-foot-by-three-foot blind spot behind their bullet-laden vehicle, the few surviving youths and the unknown killer engage in a battle of wits that shows, while there may not be anything new under the sun, one can use smoke and mirrors to reflect the light in new and different directions.
In a sense, Downrange is a “road movie,” but not like 1969’s Easy Rider or 1991’s Thelma and Louise; those kind are much too kinetic. Downrange is a road movie in a sense that the entirety of the film takes place in a 10-yard radius on a single road around a broken down SUV. It is a stationary road movie.
Flying in the face of many Slasher film conventions, Downrange has almost no running and no chasing. There are no supernatural beings and there are no openings for sequels. There are only some shallowly-written kids and a guy with a gun. It seems at times, particularly at the end, to have a subtle anti-gun message in a time when firearms are a tremendous bone of contention with the American population. Kitamura is from Japan, a country with one of the lowest gun violence rates in the world, but has never shied away from the use of guns in his other films; his film, Versus (2000) is a veritable bullet opera. Regardless, with people of all ages rising nationwide in protest of gun violence, Downrange, boiled down, showcases a faceless maybe-teens-maybe-20s cast against a calculated, cold gun-nut in the trees. A line in the sand has been drawn between constitutional and human rights in America and Downrange‘s satirical violence lands it decidedly on the side of human rights, for better or worse.
Despite possible political leanings with regards to American gun culture, the execution of the film is rather brilliant. The story keeps the audience’s attention and manages to progress at an even pace, despite the action on screen being virtually inert. Sucking out the running and screaming and replacing it with cunning and stillness while retaining all the violence expected of an American Slasher film requires some creative acrobatics, and that creativity is certainly present in Downrange. As ever, Kitamura’s films are packed with an amalgam of digital and practical gore effects that are at once, satisfying and repulsive. Gorgeous explosions of hemoglobin color the concrete crimson as high-speed bullets dance through helpless co-eds and stipple the sides of their automobile. Kitamura forever revels in over-the-top violence, which makes his films quite endearing to gorehounds the world over.
Though much of the cast are newcomers straight out of central casting with little previous work to speak of, they display authentic terror in the face of almost certain death. The de facto leader of the small band of survivors, Keren (Stephanie Pearson: Insidious: Chapter 2 2013, Bad Tutor 2018) has a modicum of know-how since her dad was in the military. She is cool and composed, albeit frustrated by the sniper’s ability to thwart their every plan.
Kitamura evokes true depictions of shock and battle-stress from his fledgling actors and actresses, but when the credits roll, the audience sees that the survivors were not particularly meant to stand out for their own merits, but be moving parts in a composite group of people under duress in a senseless shooting scenario. This idea renders the slightly-above-average performances impotent and leaves the viewers only with an non-actionable, unsatisfying message that passively condemns gun culture.
Taking into account the brilliant direction of greenhorn actors, the strikingly lurid effects, and for taking an oblique angle on the Slasher theme that could have easily fallen into cliché, CrypticRock gives Downrange a 3 out of 5 stars.