The presence of the cell phone has fundamentally changed the horror and thriller genres. If films are set in the digital era and involve any kind of “stranded” story line, they always have to account for the emancipatory protection of the cell phone. Most films use lack of service or a lost/broken phone to do this, but it almost always feels like a forced issue. Directors seem to wish they were making a film in an early period so they could just tell the story they want without this concern.
Ryuhei Kitamura, on the other hand, in his latest feature, Downrange, finds inventive ways to use the cell phone to enhance the drama. When his characters are stranded with a flat tire on a dirt road in the Western U.S., they go through the standard walk around to find a signal to get assistance. But when one of them realizes their tire was shot out and that a sniper is hiding in the hills somewhere, the surviving characters get trapped behind their car and try a number of things to get out of the situation. This includes using a hoodie on a selfie stick to distract the shooter while recording the shots on their phone to identify the shooter’s location. It’s an incredibly clever way to deal with the premise.
Unfortunately, the film does drag on after a while, with the static setting and set-up feeling forced rather than organic. By the end of the second act you, have to question why the shooter doesn’t just get out of his nest and finish the job up close. It feels like a concept for a 40-minute short film was extended to 90 minutes, only to get to its feature length without dealing with the consequences of the longer running time.
On the upside, in comparison with other “stranded young adult” horror movies in recent memory, such as The Evil in Us, this is shot with some style, using jump cuts and repeated action during intense moments for visual flare. Its actors are also more believable than your average indie horror. Stephanie Pearson and Kelly Connaire stand out as the two longest-surviving characters, dealing with the psychological effects of being trapped.
Downrange isn’t exactly revolutionary, but if you’re in the mood for a solid piece of genre filmmaking from a stylish director, there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.