Ryuhei Kitamura’s Downrange knows exactly the type of ‘grindhouse’ gore flick it wants to be the moment it introduces its antagonist with a camera shot protruding through the hole of a person’s hollowed out gunshot wound to the head.
Yes, this visual trickery is just the first in a long line of gross-out antics in a film that’s seemingly preoccupied with splintered limbs and pools of blood rather than strong character development or narrative propulsion. And since it debuted to great acclaim during the Midnight section of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Downrange feels explicitly comfortable in its facile representation of hardcore genre. Its mottot is: Don’t expect much but enjoy the ride.
Assembled with a cast of newcomers, Downrange makes the most of its single desert road location, stretching out the survival of its college students with a delirious array of pans, cranes and overhead angles. When the film eventually settles on four of its remaining protagonists, there’s not much character evolution beyond survival. The most impressive performance comes from Stephanie Pearson as Keren, whose gruff sense of intelligence and instinct reminds one of a young Michelle Rodriguez.
In fact, without Keren, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for the other two survivors with her, including shell shocked Jodi (Kelly Connaire) and Todd (Rod Hernandez) as they look for ways to escape a madman perfectly positioned in front of their stalled vehicle, slowly picking them off one by one with a sniper rifle. Even less fortunate is Eric (Anthony Kirlew), caught off guard urinating in the distance when the mayhem began and forced to hunch behind a small piece of tree stump.
From these two vantage points, Downrange extends into a lean 85 minute thriller as wits are matched and bullets are sprayed. And of course there’s the modern Maguffin of cell phone use just barely out of range. It’s a redundant tactic already, but it sort of works here.
What doesn’t work with Downrange is a lasting impression. While the best horror films have mined anonymous rural landscapes for maximum disturbing impact for over four decades now, including greats such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and, to a lesser extent, Nightmare Circus (1974), Downrange places its carefree young ones in a vast open space facing unknown terror but the stakes never feel like much beyond an exercise in style. The location is cool, but its characters are cardboard.
And while filmmaker Kitamura has established a cult following exactly because of his attention to the stylistics within such extreme genre pieces like Midnight Meat Train (2008) and Versus (2000), I suppose he makes the perfect fit for a film mostly interested in the grotesque. But is it too much to ask for some meta textual readings when the film tackles such a nerve-fraying subject as a lone gun nut targeting innocents like lambs at a slaughter? And, even more perversely unsettling, when a film cares as little as this one does about those innocent lambs, why should anyone really want to see it at all? No lasting impression, indeed.
Downrange will have exclusive streaming rights on the Shudder Channel beginning Thursday, April 26.