Downrange (2017 premier, but 2018 for non-festival-goers)
Dir. Ryûhei Kitamura
Written by Joey O’Bryan, story by Ryûhei Kitamura and Joey O’Bryan
Starring Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew
As they’re driving down a bucolic country highway, a group of those damn college kids pop a tire and roll to a stop. The girls pile out, chit-chat, and relax on the car’s shady side while the guys nervously eye the flat tire, poke at it, agree that, yup, that’s definitely a flat tire that needs to be fixed, all right. The spare doesn’t look great and they idly discuss whether to divert to get a new tire, which Jodi (Kelly Connaire, THE END OF THE TOUR [uncredited]) would rather not do, since she’s on her way to a surprise birthday party for her sister. While the new tire is leisurely installed, they make fun of social science majors, take bathroom breaks in the woods, discuss whether or not the hunky guy whose name no one can quite recall (Jason Tobias, apparently set to play hunky Jesus in the upcoming THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST [!]) is flirting with Jodi, post pictures on beloved utilitarian social media app “Socialize” and attempt to amuse themselves while they wait.
And the longer they dawdle, the more unbearable the tension becomes, because the characters naively do not realize something that the audience knows only too well: they’re in a horror movie called DOWNRANGE. This idyllic afternoon is about to take a sudden and highly unfortunate turn for them.
It’s almost a relief, then, when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they find themselves under lethal sniper fire from a hidden gunman somewhere in the surrounding countryside. They can’t drive away because of the tire, but the bullets cannot pierce the mighty hide of the imposing SUV (the gunman must be using an older rifle, speculates “army brat [from a], hunting family” and good final girl prospect “Keren” [sic] [Stephanie Pearson, 14-year-old Michelle Monaghan in KISS KISS BANG BANG]), leaving the survivors stuck -- unable to run without becoming targets, but temporarily protected while crouching behind the vehicle. And of course their cell phones get no signal.
This, then, is to be one of those survival-thrillers I spoke about so unethusiastically in my review for THE RUINS, where a small group gets stuck in a dangerous situation from which they can’t escape, and must endure a crucible of suffering to survive and get out alive (or not). These films seem to be something of a recent phenomenon; I first noticed the trend with 2010’s FROZEN (not the “Let it Go” one, the “Stuck on a ski-lift” thriller from HATCHET director Adam Green), but there’s also BURIED, HIGH LANE, THE CANYON (not the Lindsay Lohan/Paul Schrader debacle, but a 2009 lost-hikers deal), BACKCOUNTRY, BLACK WATER, the upcoming THE WELL, and an ever-increasing number of shark movies (OPEN WATER, OPEN WATER 2, THE SHALLOWS, 47 METERS DOWN, THE REEF). You might even make a case for 127 HOURS. As I pointed out with THE RUINS, these movies tend to be tense, and sometimes downright grueling, which are definitely elements of a horror movie, but something about the essential problem-solving nature of the conflict seems to undermine the most fundamental essence of the horror genre. These are films about being helpless, about a spiraling loss of control, which, at least to me, instills the experience with a fatalism which is more disspiriting than terrifying. It’s the difference between the visceral fight-or-flight adrenaline rush of a slasher movie and the punishing slog of a torture movie. Both subgenres find colorful villains imaginatively mutilating pretty young women, but the mechanics of the conflict --and, consequently, the horror-- are so different that they’re nearly antithetical.
Fortunately, DOWNRANGE has two significant advantages not usually enjoyed by this genre, which make it much more my pace. First, the danger menacing these kids is not some faceless, irresistible natural force; somewhere out there is a villain, someone who can be fought, and, just maybe --if they’re clever enough-- beaten. That adds a galvanizing personal element to the usual formula, focuses the danger into a single malevolent antagonist. You can’t really hate hungry sharks or cold weather, but when the danger takes the shape of a single, discreet adversary (however obscure), we have an object on which to focus our anxiety and our rage at being made helpless and vulnerable. That helps immensely, --at least in my book-- to solidly locate the film’s narrative and emotional landscape into a distinctly horror mode.
That’s all well and good, but plenty of total pieces of crap have clear antagonists. Fortunately, DOWNRANGE has a second major advantage: it’s directed by AZUMI, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, NO ONE LIVES and MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN director and certifiable madman Ryûhei Kitamura --the man who once knocked Ted Raimi’seyeballs out of their sockets directly into the camera in slow motion*-- who is constitutionally incapable of not being outrageous and entertaining. He’s on his best behavior here, mostly yielding to the script’s insistence on tense, gritty realism (it's written by Joey O’Bryan, co-writer of Kitamura’s LUPIN THE 3rd and Johnnie’s To’s FULLTIME KILLER), but you know you’re in good hands early on when Kitamura is unable to resist zooming the camera into a gaping bullet wound, through someone’s skull, and out the other side. That kind of irrepressible exuberance is absolutely crucial to the film’s careful balance of tones, livening a scenario which could very easily slide into gloomy misery-porn. The situation is dire, certainly, but the films never gets dour; it stays focused and nearly fanatical about insisting upon a new wrinkle every few minutes which subtly inches the story forward and the tension higher. Grueling it may be, but it’s never a grind.
It’s clearly Kitamura’s intent to keep this one grounded and plausible, banking on the victims’ vulnerability and the could-have-happened-to-anyone paranoia of the scenario. Most of the action scenes center around small-scale, practical efforts (pulling open a car door to grab a bottle of water, using an improvised dummy to distract their tormentor) that draw their impact from clean, clear execution and effectively communicated stakes. But even restrained Kitamura is still Kitamura, and every now and then, he simply cannot suppress the urge to indulge in some kind of over-the-top tick. That serves him well with the violence, which is lavish, squishy and lingered upon with the kind of pornographic joy that only a true horror director could summon.*** It serves him less well when he gets into showy frenetic editing, or kinetic camera chicanery. There is one POV shot from a rotating tire nut which is worthy of Scott Spiegel --and obviously I mean that as a high compliment-- but also some whooshy drone stuff and choppy wham-bang editing (by Shôhei Kitajima, second editor on LUPIN THE 3rd) which seems unnecessarily insecure about the film’s ample ability to maintain excitement in its microcosmic single setting. It has a whiff of desperation about it -- at its worst, it smacks of the kind of flop-sweat editing kineticism you’d see in a low-effort DTV Steven Seagal money grab, to paper over how little action there is-- which is a shame, because DOWNRANGE is anything but lacking in whammy. There’s not much of that kind of tomfoolery, and it’s certainly not too dire even when it happens, but it’s a noisy distraction from a movie which is mostly tightly controlled, and a good example of how Kitamura’s kitchen-sink ebullience can get in its own way. Case in point: his worst instinct of all is to show the killer. If you’re going to commit to the single-location, boxed-in concept, it’s folly of the worst kind to leave your characters’ perspective and reveal to the audience something they can only wonder about, and even more dire folly to do it for so little meaningful payoff (the killer is just some guy, it’s not like he’s a bigfoot or a giant spider or something that we’d be glad to get a look at).
Never one to worry about overreaching, Kitamura also adds to the pot a few gestures towards poignant human drama, with lulls in the savage assault filled with some quieter existential reflection. I tend to favor embracing the inherent absurdity of a good horror premise, but can also appreciate some genre fare done up as earnest character drama (THE MONSTER, SPRING) given the right execution. DOWNRANGE walks the tightrope between those poles, at times seeming to really commit to the idea that this is a heart-wrenching drama, at times giving in to pure splatterhouse glee. It’s a tough dance to get right, and for my money it stumbles just a few times into maudlin melodrama it can’t possibly support. Though the actors commit to it with a laudable sincerity, the film simply isn’t built to handle lachrymose soul-searching; we need to care about these characters enough that we root for them and fear that they’ll come to harm (which the movie handily accomplishes) but this is a machine build for ratcheting up tension, not morose eulogizing. Its brief forays into earnest pathos are well-enough executed, but are too tangential to have the kind of emotional impact that would justify them, and moreover they sit uneasily with the film’s impulses towards anarchic, irresponsible provocation.
Fortunately, it mostly eschews this kind of hubris; in fact, considering everything it attempts, it’s almost miraculous in its ability to thread the needle between serious, focused tension and occasional moments of over-the-top flamboyant grand guignol spiked with pitch-black gallows humor (particularly in the climax, wherein the devil on Kitamura’s shoulder clearly wins the day and allows him to give in to pure horror movie zeal). It’s not always elegant, but it gets the job done, managing to expound a minimalist scenario into something thrilling, visceral, and wholly absorbing. If it’s not always immaculately tuned to the right tone, it compensates with the gusto it applies, and that’s certainly a trade I’m more than willing to approve.
DOWNRANGE opens 4/26 (that’s today!) in select theaters, including NYC’s Nitehawk Cinema, where the director will be in attendance this weekend. For the rest of us slobs, it starts streaming on the horror streaming service Shudder which it’s probably time to start subscribing to.
* And then another victim slips on the eyeball, and then there’s a decapitation from the severed head’s POV! If I could identify the single most heartbreaking tragedy of the entire modern horror era, surely it is that this scene was not shot in 3D.
** Or, OK, you can, but then it’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, and you’ll probably want to lie down and moan for a while afterwards.
*** At one point, I noticed a severed head demurely lying on the bloody ground in a wide shot, whose original owner I could not identify with any degree of confidence. That alone would be sufficient to make this movie an easy one to recommend.