Scrappy indie slasher throwback The Ranger premiered at SXSW last week. Jenn Wexler’s directorial debut is messy, bold, and plays it fast and loose with the traditional slasher formula. In this way, I likened it to the punk subculture it’s so directly rooted in (review here); it’s not going to appeal to everyone, but a certain audience is going to deeply relate to the themes of disenfranchisement associated therein.
The feeling of being an outcast – socially, legally, morally – hounds the characters throughout the movie in part due to Wexler’s own background. “Personally, when I was a teenager, I was in a small, suburban town in New Jersey with a football team and a cheerleading squad and all that, and I was never a part of that at all. I spent my time going to punk shows and listening to music and watching horror movies. I was definitely an outcast. But I’m so happy for my terrible high school experience because it led me to really embrace the horror genre and to work in horror and for horror companies and then to want to make horror movies.”
The film’s punk-infused roots go all the way back to co-writer Giaco Furino’s original draft of the script, the result of his own devotion to the music genre. “Yeah, for me, punk has been the music I’ve listened to forever. I grew up on Henry Rollins-era Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and the big tentpole music. But one of the largest influences for me in film was The Decline Of Western Civilization. We list a lot of awesome punk-horror movies that we love, but that was such a touchstone for me.”
Going back four decades, the punk movement has relied on a do-it-yourself method of perpetuation. Punk bands have traditionally published their own zines, promotional materials and albums as a method of doing an end-zone run around gatekeepers of the established music industry. I asked if this same spirit of kicking the door in rather than waiting for it to be opened went into the making of the film. Producer Heather Buckley spoke up. “Literally how the movie was made. It was our own pack of friends going, ‘We need to make this film happen.’ And there was no question in our minds that it was going to happen. It was like a two-year process and we were just ramping it up […] and you’ve made a film and you’re premiering it at SXSW. You have to be single-minded and unstoppable to bring things into existence.”
While a dogged tenacity to all at once belong, bewilder, and break free is long associated with punk subculture, what it’s most known for is its anti-authoritarian streak. I wondered how much of the film – if any – had been inspired or motivated by some of the uneasiness bubbling to the surface of society over the past two years. “We were writing it before that,” Wexler said, “but then after it happened I think we felt a little more empowered. Anytime you’re making a movie you’re looking at the themes and you’re like, ‘Yeah, this is saying this about society!’ But I think we both felt super empowered after that.” Wexler continues.
“Sometimes I feel very helpless in the world, but I make movies. And this is my way of punching back.”
Of course a major through line between both the film and the core philosophy of punk is this idea of self-empowerment despite an oppressive society determined to box people into conformity. In The Ranger, this is best embodied by central protagonist Chelsea (played by Chloe Levine), who struggles to empower herself in the face of a bevy of aggressive forces determined to tell her who – and what – she should be. “We made the movie pre-#MeToo.” Wexler said of the role’s relevance to the current women’s rights movement. “But it’s something that’s been there for a long time on subconscious levels, definitely. This feeling is coming out because of all of this stuff that’s going on.”
“It’s an appropriate time to talk about women and their identity and their empowerment,” Buckley adds. “Especially in the genre, we lack a lot of women representation when it comes to a strong female Final Girl and f—— kickass women directors.”
Determined to continue fighting for that representation, Wexler and Buckley have no intention of resting now that The Ranger is complete. “There’s some things,” Wexler says coyly of impending future projects.
Buckley laughs. “I’m excited about it, that’s all I can say.”
The Ranger is currently seeking distribution and does not have a release date.