Following a Sundance screening of The Rambler, I found myself discussing the film with a stranger outside the theater. The man’s dislike of The Rambler ran so deep, he could hardly convey his opinion in words, relying primarily on frustrated mumbles and dismayed head shakes to get his point across. When I asked if he’d seen Calvin Lee Reeder’s previous feature, the polarizing 2011 Sundance entry The Oregonian, the man admitted that he hadn’t.
Although I could certainly sympathize with the man’s deep dislike for The Rambler, I was somewhat prepared for the experience having endured The Oregonian two years prior. Reeder is an experimental filmmaker with a deep disregard for narrative, coherence, and his potential audience. The Oregonian, at times, seemed designed to literally drive people from the theater. With The Rambler, Reeder pulls from his usual bag of slam-bang sounds and chop suey editing, but he takes the abrasiveness down a notch.
Dermot Mulroney plays the titular character, a recently paroled ex-con trying to make it to his brother’s Oregon pony ranch via a succession of Calvin Lee Reeder brain trips. Buried behind aviator shades and a cowboy hat, Mulroney isn’t given much in the way of dialogue, left to silently work a lit cigarette around his mouth as he contemplates the crazy-ass shit transpiring around him.
Bouncing from episode to episode, the movie skips and stutters like a hallucinogenic fever dream, with Mulroney getting booted out of the house by his old lady (an angry, horny Natasha Lyonne), accompanying a traveling inventor with a device that can allegedly record dreams to VHS, and falling in love with a mysterious stranger (Lindsay Pulsipher).
From the awkward, stilted dialogue to a roadhouse poker game where none of the players can shuffle, the film never bothers to hide its Lynchian underpinnings, but the bizarre-as-shit developments are intriguing rather than irritating. As much as some may dislike The Rambler, it’s a vast improvement over Reeder’s previous feature. Either Reeder is getting better as a filmmaker or I’m just becoming desensitized to his mind-numbing style.