As I’m writing this review, news has just broken of another mass shooting, this time in Texas. It’s another in what has become a regular occurrence in America: random shootings, casualties, the nation mourns, then we move on until the next incident, which, tragically, is never far off. These frequent acts of terrorism have us all on edge, all living in fear, never sure where random violence will break out or where we can be safe.
This can make it difficult to watch and talk about Downrange, the latest thriller from director Ryûhei Kitamura (Versus, The Midnight Meat Train), because it deals directly with acts of random violence like those we hear about every other week. But just as it can be designed as fun, escapist entertainment, the function of horror is also to touch a nerve, to speak to our fears, to reflect that which we dread back to us in the hopes that we might work our way through the nightmares. Downrange manages to do both; it presents a scenario that has become all too real, all too common, but stylizes it all as an exercise in sustained tension—Hitchcock by way of Takashi Miike.
A group of young people, all relative strangers, are carpooling together on a road trip when one of their tires blows out. When they stop to change it, they realize that they’re actually under fire from a mysterious, unseen sniper. With little cover and no way to call for help, the group has to stick together to survive an attack they do not understand and from which there seems to be no clear escape.
An expert stylist and technician, Kitamura elevates Downrange from what could possibly be just a cheap, exploitative thriller into something slick and outrageous, slowly escalating the situation from that of a claustrophobic exercise into a film that’s almost Grand Guignol in how far over the top it goes. The young cast is fine—attractive and capable, but thinly sketched in such a way that it’s the situation, not the characters, that garners our emotional investment. Kitamura draws us in with style and pacing and editing instead of with real human involvement, though I greatly appreciate the fact that the screenplay (credited to Joey O’Bryan, from a story by O’Bryan and Kitamura) affords the characters the chance to make smart decisions. They take action and are constantly attempting to think their way out of the situation, and even when they behave irrationally, it’s borne out of a legitimate survival instinct, not the usual idiot logic of most horror movies.
By two-thirds of the way through the running time, the fates of several late-introduction characters become almost comical so that instead of wanting them to survive, the filmmakers shift the attention to just how spectacular their respective demises will be. The realization that Downrange has pivoted from a violent survivalist thriller to a kind of gallows humor black comedy is a jarring one, but not without its own rewards.
There’s ultimately a bleak streak of nihilism running through Downrange that left this writer cold, but that’s more a matter of personal preference than it is any fault of the film. The buildup is so skillfully constructed, the violence so brutal, the depiction of the sniper so nightmarish (both in the way he’s costumed and the way he’s photographed), and the tension so visceral that it’s impossible not to find the movie totally effective. And because the movie slowly departs from depicting our own horrifying reality to become more and more absurd—what begins as a bad situation only gets much, much worse—there is still enough of an element of exaggerated escapism in Downrange that it becomes not just bearable, but downright fun.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
Check here to keep up to date on all of our coverage from the 2017 Cinepocalypse film festival!