The Ranger. 2018. Directed by Jenn Wexler. Screenplay by Wexler & Giaco Furino.
Starring Chloë Levine, Jeremy Holm, Granit Lahu, Jeremy Pope, Bubba Weiler, Amanda Grace Benitez, Jeté Laurence, Nicholas Tucci, & Larry Fessenden.
Hood River Entertainment / Glass Eye Pix
Rated 14A. 77 minutes.
Jenn Wexler, director and co-writer of The Ranger, has already had an impressive run as producer. She’s produced stuff like Larry Fessenden’s Beneath and his upcoming Frankenstein riff Depraved, Mickey Keating’s films Darling and Psychopaths, 2017’s social media crime-horror Like Me, and Ana Asensio’s criminally underrated Most Beautiful Island. Ms. Wexler is a powerhouse of indie genre cinema, only becoming more evident with her debut feature-length film.
Wexler’s film is part-punk rock slasher, part-urban v. backwoods thriller. The screenplay, co-written by Wexler and Giaco Furino, pits a bunch of punk rockers against a deranged park ranger when they wander from an urban landscape into a rural one, where they face true chaos. A contrast between spaces of law in the city versus spaces of lawlessness in the backwoods illustrates just how much urbanism has changed us.
A long line of films have juxtaposed cities and rural spaces to question how modern humans are altered by the move towards urbanism. Deliverance is one of the most well-known and most efficient. Then there’s an endless number of horror films (Just Before Dawn, Wrong Turn, etc), and more action-adventure oriented fare like the David Mamet-penned, Alec Baldwin-Anthony Hopkins vehicle The Edge.
The Ranger gives us the same type of story from a woman’s perspective – Chelsea (Chloë Levine) – which offers a fresh take on themes of authority and urbanism. Even more important is how Chelsea’s experience outside the city is a lesson about women’s survival in a quote man’s world unquote, no matter if they’re in the woods or in the world of punk rock, or anywhere else— tragically, it’s all the same.
“… what we plan to do here is strip the city from your bones— peel all the layers of your polluted existence away.”
Wexler makes a firm distinction between urban and rural landscapes in physical, as well as psychological ways. The film begins in the dingy clubs of the city, where even the colours are muted and ugly. Everything’s loud and abrasive, every space feels cramped and closed in. There’s no quiet anywhere (club, diner, etc). Once the punks hit the forest and national park, it’s all wide, open space, the colours are bright, and there’s genuine serene silence without all of modernity’s noise.
The psychological aspect of the city v. rural divide comes out of a contrast between the punk rockers and the Ranger. These punks, apart from Chelsea, aren’t presented as rebellious rockers seeking to affect change in society, they’re shown as a crew of spoiled young people with a privileged sense of nihilism. These punks, who live in a democratic society in a modern urban space, then head outside the city into a rural space where they come up against a natural, pure force of law. One of them cries “totalitarianism” over being chastised about littering in a national park, showing how trivial they see the effects of so-called fascism. Later, the Ranger literally starts murdering them one by one, and it’s tough not to find the previous complaint darkly, comically ironic.
Of course the Ranger himself is the biggest psychological break from urbanism. He represents the crossing over of that boundary, when man leaves the confines of the city and relinquishes those urban bonds, becoming closer to a “true nature.” He goes so far as to wear wolf skin on his bare body, howling like an animal at Chelsea captive in a cage. When the punks howl like wolves, they commit a symbolic sin of being fake animals, in a sense offending the Ranger’s primal side, and that leads to their deaths.
The Ranger lives in the rural, where wild spaces outside the city’s laws still exist. Yet he remains part of a patriarchal system. The rural here is a forest, but it’s a national park— capitalism, one of patriarchy’s most effective tools, applied to the natural world. The Ranger doesn’t rule over the natural landscape out of a true sense of naturalism. Like a robot he tells one of the punks: “Harry S. Truman enlisted me to protect the wildlife, scenic, and natural value of this mountain.” He’s an example of the many binaries which trap people. He’s at once a primal part of human nature and also the restrictive regulation of patriarchal rule. This makes for a significant connection with the protagonist: our punk rock lady, Chelsea.
“You’ve been a fucking tourist for years”
Another important piece to Wexler and Furino’s screenplay relies heavily on the female perspective because Chelsea’s struggle for survival in the Ranger’s brutal, natural world is a parallel to her struggle for acceptance in the modern world amongst the punk rockers. Just as Chelsea isn’t taken seriously by the Ranger, who believes he knows her and underestimates what she’s capable of because of her time living in the city, neither is she taken seriously by Garth (Granit Lahu) or the others. Garth calls her “a tourist” in the punk scene. She’s looked at as an outsider because she wants to follow the rules of her dead uncle and the national park.
There’s also a distinct separation of respective worldviews between genders even within punk rock. The juxtaposition of the city and the rural helps this theme shine. Chelsea doesn’t want to disrespect the laws of nature/the park, whereas her punk friends – mostly men – shun all rules. This is deeper than her sense of loyalty to a dead uncle, it’s an indicator of how men and women live disparate lives alongside one another. Men have the luxury of not following rules, whereas women are forced to live in another adjacent world entirely dominated by both written and unwritten rules of society.
Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, whether following the rules or going against them. On the one hand, Chelsea isn’t accepted by the punks entirely, despite their friendship, who view her as a tourist. On the other hand, the national park has its rules (“Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.”), and while some of those rules are smart it’s all another system of ownership attempting to barricade identity. By accepting a wolf-like identity, Chelsea embraces natural freedom outside all those systems of ownership and shatters the binary restricting her.
“You are not meant for the cities.
You are not meant for the suburbs.”
Wexler is a smart filmmaker with great instincts about the horror genre, and she’s also a keen writer whose view on gender can help the genre grow. Part of her film’s thematic concern re: women embracing their nature, whatever it may be, is reminiscent of a rambling Patti Smith quote from the liner notes of her 1976 record Radio Ethiopia:
“… heroine: the artist. the premier mistress writhing in a garden graced with highly polished blades of grass… release (ethiopium) is the drug… an animal howl says it all… notes pour into the caste of freedom… the freedom to be intense… to defy social order and break the slow kill monotony of censorship… to break from the long bonds of servitude…”
A large part of Chelsea’s struggle is to break free of what’s holding her back— not only from the past and her dead uncle, from the strict expectations of men and society. Although The Ranger focuses on a binary of urban v. rural, it ultimately does so to enable the audience to see how women are so often trapped in a box, forced to choose from various arbitrarily determined binary options (symbolised by anarchy v. law, rural v. urban, etc), and further made to battle at every step as they try to carve out their own individual identity.
One of the film’s final shots features Chelsea standing in the forest, free of all her bonds, next to a wolf. She doesn’t wear a wolf’s skin, like the Ranger. She’s just like the wolf— free of societal expectations and allowed to exist without interference.
The Ranger is a punk rock manifesto for women, using the backwoods slasher sub-genre as a method of delivery. Survival is a woman’s game in horror all too often, making it no different from real life. Chelsea’s survival is about more than being fated to the status of some Final Girl. Her story evokes a woman’s struggle, in a world hellbent on remaining binary in countless ways, to realise her identity without being constrained to the scrutinous rules of society, and a patriarchal one at that. Or maybe it’s just a kick ass, punk rock slice of horror. (It can be both.) Either way, Father Gore remains ready to see whatever Wexler does next.