Toronto 2017 Review: Kitamura Ryuhei's DOWNRANGE, A Lean and Mean Horror Thriller
Six college students on the way home in a carpool are stranded on an isolated road (in the middle of BFE as one puts it so eloquently) when a tire blows. Just when one of them realizes that this is no accident shots ring out and bodies begin to mount up. A shooter has been waiting for someone to come into his field of fire and these students are his next victims unless they can find a way out.
I figure the best way that I can approach Downrange is to talk about each of the three parts of the film. I am calling them, Kitamura the expressionist, Kitamura the tension seeker and Kitamura the mean bastard.
Kitamura the expressionist
When the first volley tears through the deserted silence and bodies start dropping in Downrange there are those signature flares of the old Kitamura, how he liked to move, rotate and revolve the camera around his subjects. Like the shooter zeroing in on his targets, perhaps the rotations symbolize bullseyes, or the twisting of the elevation adjustment on the shooter’s scope, we are zeroing in on our survivors as they scurry for cover and safety. Honestly seeing all that dynamic camera was like a visit from an old friend.
One of the things you pick up on when watching Downrange and the screenplay Kitamura wrote with Joey O’Bryan (also with Kitamura on Means to an End) is that it has no build up or character introductions. It starts with an SUV on a road, then it has a blow out, then death! It is like Kitamura knows, “I know why you are here. I know what you want. Let us not fuck about and get right into the mix. Cool? Cool”.
The story in Downrange has been stripped of nearly all the emotional baggage that comes with horror films with a group of teens/young adults. There is none of the crap that makes you decide whether you love or hate your victims. What we have here is essentially six strangers with one couple in the group that will give the story a little emotional umph later on.
And guess what? You don’t really hate any of them either. I know! All those years of you waiting, patiently, for a horror flick with a group of students/teens that don’t act like complete assholes to the point that you want them to die, are rewarded, here. There are a couple of goofs in the middle act that defy the logic and problem solving tenacities one character displayed up to that point. No, go on. Draw attention to your friend by throwing the bottled water near them. The shooter will not notice.
Kitamura the tension seeker
Unfortunately, after that first volley, the old Kitamura flair, the reason I liked his earlier work so much, soon stops and makes way for the intended nail biting tension of waiting for the shooter to lash out again. And there is to an extent. Not knowing when the next shot was going to ring out proved to be nerve wracking for a while. Kitamura takes the down time and injects a moments of humanity to engage us with the remaining students, led by army brat Keren (Stephanie Pearson, who, along with Kelly Connair as Jodi, stand the best chance of showing up in more horror films in the future, in my opinion).
I’m torn to say that there are sociological messages in here and that I’m not just searching for meaning in this cruel and efficient horror flick. But I could not help but notice that each black character, student Eric and ‘Cautious Police Officer’, get separated or left behind by their white counterparts and have to fend for themselves. Perhaps, as a result of the times, I am being overly sensitive to this observation.
Kitamura the mean bastard
As the film heads into the home stretch the gloves come off and Kitamura escalates the violence and gore. Fodder shows up by the car loads and the body count rises and rises right to the very end. Even the dead do not get off easy, as you can see in the trailer below. That is not the meanest moment in this story. The final act starts with a ‘you didn’t just go there’ moment and caps with an `oh that is just mean`kill. No one is safe on this isolated stretch of road.
There is no explanation of the shooter’s motives, there is no discourse or monologue that gives cause to his deadly rampage other than visual cues throughout that they have been doing it for a while. Long standing horror fans may feel like they have been duped because Kitamura has thrown aside many of the horror genre’s conventions and focus on just delivering a lean, mean, blood soaked survival thriller. We demand tropes, dagnabit!
If Kitamura’s goal was to deliver a lean, mean, and ruthless horror flick with Downrange he largely succeeded. Between the moments of nail biting tension Downrange bristles with eye-popping gore delivered by the business end of a barrel.