The following review is coverage for the Toronto International Film Festival.
One of the most astounding things about cinema as an art form is that it can be constantly surprising in how creative people can make a lot with relatively little. It’s a creative marketplace dominated by corporate juggernauts and pretty faces, but sometimes all a director needs is a single location, some actors, and a special effects crew to make something fun and interesting. Enter Downrange, the barest of bare-bones premises realized to a ninety minute film that in no way should be able to sustain itself for that amount of time given how basic the set-up and how relatively banal the plotting that follows. But this is that rare film that shows that execution is everything, and while it isn’t going to blow anyone away with its ingenuity, Downrange really works on its own modest terms.
Again, the set-up is shockingly simple: a group of six college-age folks are carpooling through a desolate countryside when one of their tires goes flat. In the process of changing the tire, they discover that it didn’t just go flat, but that it was shot out by a sniper bullet. At this point the unseen sniper resumes firing on the group, and it’s up to the surviving members of the party to figure out how to survive the onslaught until they can flag down another car to come to their aid.
Director Ryûhei Kitamura seems entirely disinterested in crafting deep characters or exploring psychological trauma in any meaningful form. All of his characters are stock archetypes—the calm and collected one, the guy on the constant verge of panic, the quiet one who finds her inner strength—and they generally don’t have much pathos beyond their roles as victims of circumstance. You don’t root for them as likeable people or even as people at all, but rather because the film positions them as the protagonists and that’s just what you’re supposed to do with your film’s protagonists.
On its own, this would make for a very tired and unoriginal film, but Kitamura seems to understand at least one thing very well: thrills. Even though we remain in a single location for the entirety of the film’s runtime, we aren’t simply limited to a group of young adults hiding behind a car as they bemoan their situation. Characters are constantly shifting the dynamics of the situation and changing the status quo, which leads to bullet wounds, explosions, maimings, and casualties that consistently up the ante and keep the stakes engaging. If there’s one thing that Downrange isn’t short on, it’s gore, as it is liberally applied in ways that are entirely exaggerated yet no less brutal for it. Combined with some camera work that plays with perspective—one shot, for example, travels through a victim’s bullet wound—and this film stands out almost entirely on its visual ingenuity.
None of this should be taken to mean that Downrange is a great film. To the contrary, the shallowness of the premise and its characters means that this is a film that is immediately disposable and unlikely to leave too lasting an impression after its consumption. However, it seems to understand those modest terms on which it operates and makes the most of them, offering a violently exploitative spectacle that wants nothing more than its audience to tune in and turn off. If gory midnight movies are your thing, you can do a lot worse than Downrange.