'Downrange': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Downrange - STILL 1 - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
As obvious and nerve-wracking as a sniper up a tree.

Midnight Madness king Ryuhei Kitamura illustrates the hidden dangers of changing a flat tire in a bloody one-note horror film.

If having a blow-out on a deserted country road is annoying, and having no signal to call AAA is worse, how about then noticing that your flat tire has a bullet in it? Director Ryuhei Kitamura and screenwriter Joey O’Bryan prune the shocks of Downrange down to a single basic situation: A hidden shooter is up a tree with a long-range rifle, and he’s out for blood. It’s the kind of absurd situational horror that can’t help but have an entertaining side to it, which is a good thing because it helps pass the long intervals of nervous waiting to see which college student will die next.

Kitamura, who made his mark on the genre with the Japanese indie zombie film Versus, started directing American stories with the Clive Barker-inspired The Midnight Meat Train. He clearly feels at home with a U.S. setting, anonymous as it is here, but directing inexperienced English-language actors is another matter. Awkward performances and dialogue undercut interest in the characters so much that none of their raw, fleshy deaths matter a hoot, and by the time the rip-roaring triple ending rolls around, many viewers will have lost count of who’s still standing and who’s food for the birds.

A handsome new SUV with three girls and three guys aboard is whisking down a hilly summer road past yellow fields and clumps of trees, when the left rear tire blows out, sending it swerving. The occupants pile out and are dismayed to find that there’s no signal to call roadside assistance; and the next town is half an hour away. They’re stranded. Slowly, very slowly, one of the boys gets the tool chest out and starts changing the tire. His friends wander off making jokes and taking selfies, while D.P. Matthias Schubert’s ominous lighting and camerawork relentlessly jack up the tension. Those nice, straight young people look very exposed and vulnerable standing around in the middle of that long empty road, and they're much too calm.

When a bullet falls out of the tire, the tire changer registers a startled look and a sinking sensation, moments before his head is blasted apart. Someone is shooting at the van, someone very skillful with a long-range rifle. Someone perched in a tree and dressed in bird feathers.

The friends’ initial disbelief at what is happening gives the shooter the chance to pick off another one. Panicking and hysterical, they huddle behind the big car, which offers surprisingly flimsy protection from high-powered bullets. They desperately grope for a plan of escape, but their options seem horribly limited. It’s time to bet on who among the walking wounded will fall in the crosshairs of the mysterious sniper (the film does a nice job defeating expectations) and wash the road with their blood.

The minimalist simplicity of the idea has its own elegance, but it’s a relief when at long last another vehicle chances along, if nothing else to replenish the cast. Here the script makes a sudden hairpin turn toward much flashier effects, letting out the stops in a satisfying, hair-raising bloodbath with a touch of unforeseen black comedy.

The film sports a low-budget indie look, which is entirely appropriate to its subject, without looking ugly. The editing by Shohei Kitajima is very precise and music from Aldo Shilaku adds to the unreal atmosphere. 

Production companies: Genco Inc., Eleven Arts
Cast: Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez-Farella, Anthony Kirlew, Alexa Yeames, Jason Tobias
Director: Ryuhei Kitamura
Screenwriter: Joey O’Bryan  
Producers: Ryuhei Kitamura, Ko Mori
Executive producer: Taro Maki
Director of photography: Matthias Schubert
Production designer: Douglas Wilmar
Editor: Shohei Kitajima
Music: Aldo Shilaku
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: Genco Inc.

90 minutes