By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson and Rod Hernandez-Farella
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Written by Joey O’Bryan
Ryuhei Kitamura, the director who turned a head-smashing with a hammer into an exercise in “bullet time” digital trickery in THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, is at it again. In DOWNRANGE, when someone is shot through the skull with a high-powered rifle, we’re taken all the way through the bloody tunnel that has been blasted through the poor victim’s noggin via the magic of CGI.
This unfortunate is one of six college-age friends who are driving down a California back road, minding their own business, when a tire blowout leaves them stranded. This “accident” occurs right at the film’s start, indicating that Kitamura and scriptwriter Joey O’Bryan (the two collaborated on the story) are less interested in significant character development than in crafting an elemental survival story stripped down to its tense, bloody essentials. There are suspenseful moments as a couple of the group wander away from their SUV to find cell-phone signals (and actually succeed a bit); cinematographer Matthias Schubert isolates them in the frame and makes the sunny rural environment seem threatening, even before a bullet falls out of the destroyed tire, revealing the threat against the group: an unseen sniper somewhere in the surrouding hills and trees.
In short order, two of them are head-shot and lying in pools of blood, though one is still, barely, alive—one of many nasty touches splattered throughout DOWNRANGE. This is one vicious piece of work, as Kitamura thrusts our faces into makeup effects creator Kazuyuki Okada’s wet, squishy handiwork and lingers on the characters’ suffering. With very little backstory (all we really know up front is that Jodi, played by Kelly Connaire, is heading for a surprise sweet-16 party for her sister), this is the type of thriller that aims to define its protagonists by how they respond to their perilous circumstances. In the case of Keren (Stephanie Pearson), it helps that she’s an Army brat with a knowledge of firearms, though the first plan they agree upon is based on the dubious notion that moving three feet makes the difference between getting cell reception and not.
DOWNRANGE is a partially successful exercise in situational horror for a while, as its unknown cast does a decent job of maintaining sympathy even given their limited material. Their demises are certainly impactful, and it’s easy to identify with the terror of being trapped in the sights of a long-range killer you can’t see. That’s why it feels like a miscalculation when Kitamura, at a certain point, begins giving us glimpses of his villain, done up in camouflage gear and perched in a tree. Once he thus becomes a concrete rather than mysterious threat, and the strain of extending this simple premise to feature length begins to show, the movie loses some of its grip.
Kitamura and O’Bryan attempt to wrench DOWNRANGE back on track with a graphic setpiece around the hour mark, but take it in overwrought and nihilistic directions that try too hard to be shocking. Things go completely off the rails at the climax, leaving plausibility behind in the interest of building up the body count and attempting a horrific/ironic punchline that succeeds only in sucking all the air out of the movie. DOWNRAGE is worth a shot if your taste in terror runs toward the cold-hearted side, but it ultimately misses the target.