There is not a wasted moment in the grisly horror-thriller Downrange, which is about the best thing one can say about it. The setup goes into effect within the first 30 seconds, as an SUV driven by a group of college students carpooling from somewhere to somewhere (details are pretty much beside the point here) has a tire blow out in the middle of a rural highway in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The college students (Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew, Alexa Yeames, and Jason Tobias) are a typically attractive, multi-ethnic array of soon-to-be-victims, and they chatter happily, joke about changing the tire, take a selfie, and struggle to get a signal for their cell phones. Two of them are a couple, one is on her way to her sister's sweet 16 birthday party, and the others are, well, they're there.
Soon after one of them discovers that the tire didn't blow out, but was rather shot out, bullets start flying as an unseen sniper with a vicious agenda begins picking them off. Director Ryhei Kitamura, who helmed a dozen action, horror, and fantasy films and television series in his native Japan (including 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars) before making his English-language debut with the gruesomely titled Clive Barker adaptation The Midnight Meat Train (2008), has a flair for the gory and the grotesque, and he makes his agenda clear when he situates the camera inside the first victim's head and then pulls out of the massive hole in the back of his skull. Even though all the violence in the film is inflicted by bullets, Kitamura does everything he can to make each shot as splattery, gooey, and ghastly as possible, lest he lose the audience's interest. Brains fly, blood pools, and eyes are shot out-and that's just the first two victims.
And, with its relentlessly simple set-up and single, relatively uninteresting location, Downrange is in constant danger of wearing out its welcome, although it never quite does. These types of brutal entrapment scenarios are becoming more and more common-we saw it last year in Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room (2016) and earlier this year in Doug Liman's The Wall (2017), which features almost the exact same scenario, albeit with a U.S. soldier being pinned down by an Iraqi sniper in the desert. Screenwriter Joey O'Bryan, who previously had a hand in writing Kitamura's Lupin the 3rd (2014), is just clever enough to maintain a passable level of tension and suspense in his script, even if we never become really invested in any of the characters beyond their placeholders as will-they or won't-they become victims. However, when O'Bryan tries to get too dramatic (as when one character gives a lengthy speech about a lost pregnancy), you can feel the strain to make it all somehow matter. It doesn't really, as the only thing the film has going for it is the question of who will survive.
All other questions, including the identity of the shooter and the reasons for his random attack, are left intentionally unanswered-which is perhaps best since, after all, what explanation could possibly suffice? We see plenty of him, swathed in a ghillie suit with his face shrouded and only his flinty blue eyes visible, which is enough to suggest all kinds of tantalizing possibilities (a hunter who got finally bored with just shooting animals? a shell-shocked veteran who has lost his grip on reality? a generally embittered soul who is angry about the culture wars?). The unanswered mystery is one of the film's best moves, although you can't help but wish that, in other areas, there was more to Downrange. Too much of it feels excessively gruesome and even cruel, with touches of nihilism that border on the bitterly comical as a means to fill the emotional and dramatic gaps. It does what it does reasonably well with a sense of exploitative glee, but it's also immediately forgettable.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Genco
Overall Rating: (2)
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