Sometimes you can get lost in the wanderings of a directionless film and come out the other end in a somewhat better place. This is often achieved with excellent cinematography, strong acting or interesting environments. Other times you can be driven nearly mad by nearly the same set of circumstances. Such is the case with Calvin Reeder’s (Gary, V/H/S Tape 56) The Rambler, a film that skirts that edge and steps on both the positive and negative sides of its approach to create a dream-like world and basic story where very little makes sense.
The lack of making sense isn’t entirely a bad thing, mind you, because Reeder is clearly a talented director with an excellent eye for what should stick and what should matter. However, those kind of choices only go so far and ultimately you have to have some level of logic or basic plot to fall back on after leading the viewer through a seemingly disconnected set of events. Events which vacillate between banal and downright freaky in a seemingly random kind of pattern. The willingness to go full-weird and certainly to go full-out gonzo at moments really give the film jolts of energy. It is the interconnectedness between those energetic freak out moments that cause the rhythm to be all over the place. It is there where a clearer, more defined plot would have helped immensely. Because the plot, as it were, could be boiled down to one sentence:
A man gets out of prison and in the process of making it to his brother’s farm in Oregon confronts a wild, dangerous and unsettling cast of characters standing in his way.
There you go. That is the bulk of the plot. Dermot Mulroney plays the title character with a kind of shrugging, vacant there-ness that is off-putting and unsettling at first but as his environment grows stranger, more violent and creepier, he seems downright normal. It seems like this is part of the point when it all comes down to it. Take this guy who, under any other circumstance may make you cross to the other side of the street if you saw him coming, and put him in one whack-a-noodle situation after another to the point where his foreboding creepy vibe isn’t even noticeable. In some ways it reminded me a little of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink in that way. Take Turturro’s character in that movie and put him in another less crazed situation and your suspecting and pitying eyes would only be on him.
Back to the Rambler, Mulroney does just fine in the role, as do the majority of folks he meets along the way. There aren’t solid characters in this film for the most part, more, there are a slew of ‘representations of things’ if that makes some sense. They don’t seem like people: from the lonely-heart girl he meets in a small town to the crazy-science-experiment-man (great job by James Cady) to a couple of backroom fight promoters to a ‘cripple enthusiast’ to the sharply mean pawn shop owner lady and on and on. None seem like living, breathing people. Not that they aren’t interesting (seriously, the scientist guy could have a movie just about him and his dream machine thing) because they are, as a whole, fascinating. But they just don’t seem like actual people to me and so the weirdness, the danger, the violence seems more dulled out since it isn’t done by real, living things. More a moving painting than a movie more often than not.
This brings me back to one of the strongest parts of the film itself. As I mentioned before, the cinematography is quite excellent and pulls the many conflicting parts together into a strong fabric. It is the eye of Dave McFarland that does this film its most honorable service and it seems like without the style in which it was filmed and the handful of truly beautiful shots that highlight both the fade-washed daytime and the night, it wouldn’t be as compelling as it often is. Really grand work on his part.
So, here is the deal with this film. If you go in expecting some kind of Terry Gilliam-esque display of lovely weirdness, you’ll be frustrated. If you come in expecting a bloody, breakdown type of road horror movie, you’ll be frustrated even more. But if you can deal with the non-linear, non-sensical nature of The Rambler, then it is worth seeing if for nothing more than the great camera-work and great traveling scientist character.