‘First-time feature director’ can be a loaded term. It often implies inexperience – yet Jenn Wexler has not only written, directed and produced two short films (Slumber Party and Halloween Bash), but also produced several stylistically and thematically arresting indie titles by other directors, like Mickey Keating’s Darling and Psychopaths, Robert Mockler’s Like Me and Ana Asensio’s Most Beautiful Island. So she comes to The Ranger, her own feature debut as writer/director/producer, with considerable expertise. Basically, we are in safe (if bloody) hands.
Someone has (metaphorical) blood on their hands in the film’s opening sequence, a primal if partial scene in which a park ranger (Jeremy Holm) praises a very young Chelsea (Jeté Laurence) for being “a fighter today”, “a wolf” and “just the kind of spirit this park needs”, and then reassuring her, as the police pull up outside, “About what happened: we did what we could, no one will know.”
Years later, pink-haired Chelsea (Chloe Levine) hangs out with a crew of drug-dealing young punks in New York City. When, during a bust, her boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu) stabs a policeman, the gang of four – including couple Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weiler) – decides to hole up at the remote old cabin where Chelsea had holidayed as a child with her late uncle (Larry Fessenden). Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez), whose van they have requisitioned, is happily along for the ride. The gang is there to make noise and get high, but Chelsea has returned to where she feels most at home – like one of the perennial flowers outside the abandoned cabin which, as she points out, “come back on their own.”
What follows is a Deliverance-style clash of cultures, as young urban anti-authoritarian outlaws come into collision with the same ranger, now an older, tight-assed stickler for park regulations, and more than happy to rid his park permanently of littering, drinking, drug-taking miscreants. Caught in the middle of the ensuing bloodbath, Chelsea must work out whether she is just more prey during ‘hunting season’, or the wolf that the ranger always said she was and wants her to be.
If the synthetic drug that these kids snort and sell is called ‘Echo’, then The Ranger too resonates with hallucinatory flashbacks to cinema past. For as Chelsea gets ever closer to confronting and embracing her childhood trauma, the film too looks back, to the blue-and-pink colour schemes of the Eighties, to the backwoods bellicosity of Southern Comfort, to the uniformed slasher sensibilities of Maniac Cop, and to the mythos of every cabin-in-the-woods movie since The Evil Dead. From all this there emerges a new anti-heroin(e), going cold turkey and rediscovering her animal instincts fully-formed.
The Ranger was seen and reviewed at Fantasia 2018.