Filmmaker Jenn Wexler provides more fodder for the VOD pipeline with “The Ranger,” yet another entry in the ever-expanding subgenre of ’80s slasher-movie homages. Diehard gorehounds may be disappointed by its relatively infrequent reliance on graphic and grisly mayhem (relative to this particular subgenre’s standards, that is), but Wexler’s discretion in this area turns out to be one of her film’s few distinguishing characteristics.
At this late date, it’s really no longer a novelty for a horror movie to boast a strong-willed female lead who, when push comes to shove, effectively pushes back against the boogeyman. To be fair, however, Chloe Levine (of Netflix’s “The Defenders”) is thoroughly persuasive as a young woman empowered by her ordeal. Levine plays Chelsea, a pink-haired punk rocker who goes on the lam with four similarly punkish companions after police stage a drug raid at their favorite club, and Garth (Granit Lahu), her hot-headed boyfriend, stabs a cop as they escape.
Just before they hit the road, Chelsea briefly contemplates finishing off the wounded officer with his own revolver. It’s the first sign of her connection to the little girl in the film’s ambiguous prologue, a portentous scene where the youngster agrees to some sort of deception with a doting park ranger (Jeremy Holm of “Mr. Robot” and “House of Cards”) before another intrusion by law-enforcement personnel.
Not at all surprisingly, that same park ranger reappears as Chelsea and her friends reach their destination, the secluded cabin in the woods (yes, this is that kind of movie) where little Chelsea and her late uncle spent many happy days together years earlier. Sounding like a cross between Jack Webb’s stiff-backed Sgt. Joe Friday from “Dragnet” and Patrick Warburton’s smug “control enthusiast” in the National Car Rental television spots, the ranger sternly rattles off a list of rules and regulations that proscribe littering, wild partying, and general misbehavior on what he pointedly describes as “my mountain.” Naturally, the unwelcome visitors — except for Chelsea, who clearly knows better — proceed to light bonfires, ingest mind-altering drugs, play music at a deafening volume, and even spray-paint trees surrounding the cabin. Inevitably, they pay dearly for their crimes against Mother Nature.
Wexler, directing a screenplay she co-wrote with Giaco Furino, dawdles a bit before the movie’s first kill, giving most of the misbehavers more than enough screen time to come across as negligible at best, obnoxious at worst, and therefore eminently disposable. It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that everything leads to a climactic confrontation between Chelsea, whose capacity for violence may stem from a childhood trauma, and the ranger, who insists on seeing a kindred spirit in the resourceful punk grrl. Along the way, there are strong suggestions that a killing once deemed accidental may have been intentional, and somewhat hazier hints that the culprit was entirely justified in pulling the trigger. Curiously enough, however, Wexler stops far short of providing a satisfying payoff for these plants.
As Chelsea, Levine neatly balances fierce urgency and mortal terror, which goes a long way toward giving “The Ranger” some semblance of credibility. Holm provides effective counterpoint with an amusingly stylized performance that might have been even more flat-out entertaining had he been encouraged to venture a tad farther over the top. As it stands, he smoothly alternates between intimidating authority figure and broad comic relief, with sporadic flashes of gleeful sadism for good measure.
Speaking of sadism: If you’ve ever enjoyed “The Most Beautiful Girl,” Charlie Rich’s enduringly popular 1973 country-pop hit, you may find yourself squirming (or laughing, or both) each time Wexler impudently employs it on her movie’s otherwise punk rock-skewing soundtrack.