We go to the movies to laugh, cry, and everything in between. But no other genre electrifies an audience like horror. Nothing beats the adrenaline rush audiences experience in the safety of a theatre. But some films get under our skin and linger in the dark corners of our minds after the lights come back on. Supernatural killers and 30-foot sharks tap into our primal fears of being hunted, trapped, and preyed upon. Ryûhei Kitamura’s horror/thriller, Downrange, takes an all-too-real threat, a mass shooter, and twists it into a B-movie gore-fest. Considering the amount of gun violence in the news lately, Downrange seems poised to hit a raw nerve.
Downrange begins with a group of college-age strangers on a road trip. They’re so “millennial” its hilarious; with their ride-sharing, selfie sticks, and social media obsessions. This is as deep as their characterizations go – and you’ll notice they’re so “meh” I don’t bother naming them. The group blow out a tire while driving through the middle of nowhere and they stop on the side of the road for a quick repair. And faster than you can say Snapchat, somebody’s head explodes. It turns out their flat wasn’t an accident. A sniper shot out their tire and now he’s hiding somewhere in the distance and picking them off. With no cell reception, no traffic, and nowhere to hide, the survivors enter a lethal game of cat and mouse with an unseen killer.
Downrange’s location scout picked a perfect setting for a film that takes place on one small stretch of road. The setting looks remote enough for the plot to seem viable, but it never grows stale either. For such a wide open space the location feels oppressive. You almost feel the heat rays blasting off the asphalt. And the road is flanked by sparse brush, awash in dusty yellow and brown grass. It wouldn’t be out of place if a tumbleweed rolled through the arid landscape.
Cinematographer Matthias Schubert finds interesting positions for his camera to capture the action. Although at times, Schubert gets flashy for the sake of being flashy (like when the camera spins 360 degrees while a tired gets swapped out). The film relies on rapid-fire editing to emphasize the frantic action, but the quick cuts also remove the tension from dramatic moments.
If there’s one area where Downrange shines it’s the film’s visual effects; they’re unapologetically gory. Bullets whiz through hands, jawbones, and eye sockets, leaving hollowed-out crevasses in their wake. After one character takes a shot to the hand, a rubbery flap of fingers dangles down around their wrist. The violence happens in stops and starts, but when it hits, it’s intense. Squeamish viewers need not apply.
Fleshed out characters spouting Aaron Sorkin calibre dialogue aren’t essential to thrillers and horror flicks. Sometimes people just want to sit in a dark room with strangers and have the shit scared out of them. For this to happen, though, most films need at least mildly compelling characters. Downrange fails to clear this low bar. Downrange’s cast of characters are bland, indistinguishable, and poorly performed.
The script didn’t convince me to like these kids before the action starts, and once things get crazy, they’re even harder to like. In most found footage movie there is a point when characters run through the woods screaming. The trope remains lazy, cliché, and annoying as hell. Downrange doubles down on the terrified screaming characters bit, except it mixes up the formula with hobbled, pinned down, and screaming characters. It’s the movie version of fingernails on the chalkboard and it goes on far too long. I wouldn’t blame anyone for rooting for the shooter.
So, at this point, you would assume that the film’s hook is that it’s thrilling. And yet, it’s not. The pinned down characters must use their wits to outsmart the shooter but their quick-thinking isn’t as fun to watch as what you get on a random episode of MacGyver (the 1985 version). Even the balls-out set pieces don’t pass muster. The movie’s insane climax comes out swinging for the fences but keeps on whiffing. It’s a poorly edited and mind-numbingly illogical mess.
A film where characters spend so much time sitting on their asses needs to focus on characterization and dialogue. Downrange fails on both fronts. Judging by the films “shocking” ending, it wants to unnerve you while making a bold statement. But it isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is. Downrange doesn’t work as a horror movie, a thriller, or a social commentary. This movie is below average, even by schlocky B-movie standards.