The woods are no place for punks—at least, that seems to be the case in Jenn Wexler’s feature film debut, The Ranger. Despite their studded jackets and tough attitudes, Wexler’s punks are no match for a deranged park ranger who knows these woods like the back of his hand. Set to a screaming soundtrack and chock full of gnarly kills, The Ranger is a creative reimagining of 1980s slasher films that rewrites its more harmful tropes into something perfect for our current cultural moment, a brilliant mashing of nostalgia and progressive filmmaking.
Chelsea (Chloë Levine) is an angsty punk who is haunted by a trauma in her past. She snorts coke, thrashes around at shows, and surrounds herself with insufferable people who help her keep the demons at bay. All that is initially shown about this trauma is a younger version of herself (Jeté Laurence, fresh off a wild performance in Pet Sematary) sitting on a cliff with The Ranger (Jeremy Holm), who tells her she is a wolf. But her coke-fueled haze is interrupted when cops bust into the bar where she’s partying with her boyfriend and friends. As she tries to escape the law, her intolerable boyfriend, Garth (Granit Lahu), stabs a cop to help her get away.
Chelsea, Garth, and three of their friends pile into a spray-painted van and speed away to evade capture. This group of five misfits, all trying to live a punk lifestyle where they’d rather kill cops than animals, decide to hide in Chelsea’s deceased uncle’s cabin in the middle of the woods. But what lurks in these woods doesn’t take kindly to city dwellers and wants to keep his woods clean.
Wexler nails her Final Girl and Killer, the two most important parts of a slasher. Levine shines as Chelsea, playing a conflicted woman trying to find her community. She exists on the outskirts of the punk rock scene, flitting around, retracting inside of herself as she interacts with boyfriend and friends. Levine is able to portray Chelsea’s pain with just a look, her big eyes conveying how haunted she is by her traumatic past. Paired with Levine is Holm as The Ranger, a deliciously creepy killer who recites park regulations as he kills his victims. Their lives are intertwined, but I won’t spoil exactly how or why. He is no mask-wearing serial killer or supernatural force—he is just a park ranger who wants to keep his park clean. Or so it seems.
Besides Chelsea, every member of her punk rock friend group is borderline intolerable. They are antagonistic, loud, annoying, and rude. They exude an excessive “fuck you” attitude that moves away from being anarchic and just becomes insufferable. However, this isn’t unlike the friend groups of a slasher film—they seem to orbit around the Final Girl, Chelsea in this case, existing as foils to her personality, showcasing just how much she exists on the outskirts of their lives. All of these characters, Chelsea included, could benefit from more characterization and detail. But, in keeping the film tight and at a short 77 minutes, Wexler trims as much narrative fat as possible to emphasize the film’s violence.
Despite their insufferable personalities, these characters, particularly Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weller), avoid the problematic stereotypes often seen in slashers. Jerk and Abe are a gay couple and they are treated like any other heterosexual couple, which is sadly still surprising in 2019. It is rare to see gay characters treated with such, or any, care in horror, so to see this couple portrayed as such feels like a shining beacon in the night. They are not catty or used to comedic relief, and they are not murdered for their sexuality. Further, there is no exploitative male gaze that works to sexualize the female characters, and there is no sex that must be punished. Instead, Wexler creates a group of five annoying kids who are punished by The Ranger simply for being contaminated city trash.
Reminiscent of Green Room, Wexler brings absolute chaos with The Ranger as she reworks a classic, well-loved genre. While it is not a new idea to reimagine the slasher, Wexler brings her own creative voice to its resurgence, reworking its more exploitative tropes while also working within a popular subculture. It’s punk rock versus nature, it’s anarchy versus lawful order. No amount of combat boots and band patches can protect you from The Ranger.
The Ranger is coming to Shudder on May 9.