From the earliest moments of 'The Rambler,' Calvin Lee Reeder's dark, hallucinatory follow-up to 'The Oregonian,' there are suggestions of directors whose work may have influenced his most recent opus. At once, Reeder's film brings to mind hints of John Waters, Greg Araki, Alex Cox and, most definitely, David Lynch; but the film's collection of increasingly incoherent tableaus and images that range from sorrowful, to odd, to horrific and finally, downright nonsensical, lacks the cohesion and deft touch that the direction of those mentioned above might be able bring to the table.
Dermot Mulroney stars as the eponymous Rambler, a laconic cowboy and ex-con traveling to his brother's Oregon horse farm to start anew, but is constantly besieged by a series of nightmarish run-ins with demented folks seemingly on their way to, or are content residing in, the middle of nowhere. Along the way, Mulroney makes the acquaintance of a man called the Scientist, who travels the scenic routes in a beat-up station wagon carrying mummified corpses and a proprietary piece of equipment designed to record a subject's dreams to VHS, but instead winds up blowing their heads to smithereens. Rambling along, we're also briefly introduced to an incredibly easygoing liquor store clerk, an untrustworthy fight supporter who gets Mulroney in the ring against a man with a real nasty left hook, and a comely blonde woman played by Lindsay Pulsipher ('True Blood,' 'Justified') who takes a liking to the Rambler's reserved ways and also manages to be horribly maimed, sliced, and crushed several times, only to be seemingly resurrected at every out-of-the-way town or watering hole in which Mulroney finds himself.
Each successive encounter introduces another weird, grotesque or dreamlike character, and every location is clearly intended to look grimy, dark, and gradually more ominous than the one that came before. But like a carnival's house of horrors, there's nothing behind that sense of foreboding; the movie just plays up nastiness for the sake of show. Now I'm all for surrealism and bizarre imagery, but when a prolonged sequence features a deformed woman, chained to a stake in someone's front yard, vomiting into the mouth of a mostly naked Dermot Mulroney, I tend to check out. This isn't symbolism with meaning and it's certainly not taking trash and turning it into art; 'The Rambler' is an ugly, illogical little film that wants to be Lynchian, but comes up woefully short.
One of the biggest problems is that all the characters exist primarily to propel what plot there is and move Mulroney to and from whatever soon-to-be-trippy-or-disgusting scene is being presented at the moment. They're all just ciphers, an infinite stream of two-dimensional oddities whose sole purpose is to enhance the incongruity of the film. None of them manage to have much to say about the other characters or the story at hand; there's no connective tissue between anything aside from the idea that Dermot Mulroney sees and experiences, but doesn't really respond to a bunch of weird occurrences.
Instead, these disparate elements serve to color a film that's really just one giant conglomeration of all the colors on the palette – eventually it all just settles into a single, amorphous lump that appears distinct for a moment, but upon further inspection is really just a vague blob. Watching the movie, it's difficult to escape the feeling that Reeder just threw in whatever suited his fancy and felt zero obligation in regard to connecting the images in some meaningful way.
Moreover, the film seems to actively encourage the viewer to detest it, as though this were some form of dare-based cinema. Sure, it's chock full of weirdness (which will undoubtedly serve as an attraction for some), but Reeder sees immediate diminishing returns on said weirdness, as none of it truly amounts to anything. The film lacks meaning in its surrealism, and while it attempts to skate by on the supposition that surrealist films (or other works of art) are intended to be illogical; there is a precision that is required to pull this off successfully. As Thomas Pynchon once said in regard to surrealism, "…any old combination of details will not do."
The thing is this: Reeder isn't a bad filmmaker; it's that his attempts at surrealism lack that elusive final piece that would lock his idea in place and make them work. He clearly has an eye for constructing compelling scenes and seems to understand what he's trying to do (even if it is just cobbling random crazy images together and calling it a film). And while you may not like it (I certainly didn't) it's hard not to appreciate a filmmaker who isn't afraid to put so much effort into something like this. But all that effort may be for naught, because by the time the film reaches its conclusion, 'The Rambler' is likely to have exhausted the audience's sense of goodwill and patience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Rambler' comes from Anchor Bay as a single 25GB disc in an eco keepcase. This is a barebones edition of the film that has a few previews prior to the top menu, but does not contain any supplements at all. No word on whether or not an edition with some special features is planned.
With its 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, 'The Rambler' looks pristine through and through. One of the more redeeming qualities about this film is that it is very nice to look at; great care was put into the cinematography and it shows on this nearly impeccable transfer.
It is noticeable that although he toys with the viewer by putting in some digital effects to mimic a television briefly losing its signal, or switching channels, Reeder thankfully did not opt to use heavy filters – which seem to attract so many young filmmakers – and instead filmed his nightmarish dreamscape in a fairly straightforward manner. In terms of judging the disc on the quality of its image, this decision makes things quite a bit easier.
For starters, the image is crystal clear. Fine detail is present in nearly every single shot and the picture is completely devoid of noise or other distracting artifacts. The lack of grain suggests the film was shot on digital – which is not much of a surprise – but Reeder's director of photography, David McFarland, has done a fantastic job making sure the movie looks polished and refined, without being sterile. In that regard, and although most of the colors here refer to the hot, dusty environment the Rambler is rambling through, the picture never gets washed out while attempting to convey a sense of location. Browns, tans and other earthy colors all stand out, but manage to play nicely with the occasional reds and blues to create a bright, vibrant image that highlights the bizarre images on screen.
Additionally, contrast levels are high throughout; blacks are rich and deep, while whites never look blown-out or overdone – even for the sake of assigning place or feeling. There is also a great amount of depth in the picture that works well during scenes of low or intense light. Aside from a few instances of soft focus, this is a great looking image overall.
'The Rambler' uses the less common Dolby TrueHD 5.1 for its audio track and the result is actually rather pleasing.
The movie relies heavily on its audio elements, from dialogue to sound effects and musical score, and the TrueHD mix does a great job of handling them all. Dialogue is generally pushed through the center channel speaker, though there are plenty of instances where the rear channels are used to create the sense that voices are coming from various different places and the disorienting effect is used quite well. Overall, dialogue comes through clearly and is easy to understand, but most importantly, it is balanced with the other elements on the mix, so that it remains distinct and precise, regardless the level of calamity pouring through the other speakers.
On that note, the mix also does a great job of spreading out the sound that can sometimes be very minimal, and making it as effective as it needs to be. Other times, there is quite a lot of music and other sound effects to convey a sense of weirdness or that something is off, and while this can sometimes be overwhelming for the listener, it seems to have been a deliberate part of this movie. While portions may be unpleasant to listen to, it always sounds clear and precise, and is likely just as the director envisioned.
This TrueHD mix makes excellent use of several disparate elements at once and manages to combine them into a successful soundtrack utilizing a wide range and multiple channels for optimum results.
As mentioned above, there are no special features included on this disc.
'The Rambler' is certainly designed to be one of those films that's difficult to wrap your head around, and in that sense, I suppose it's successful. Where it misses the mark is in taking that opaque quality and turning it into something with purpose or infusing it with some sense of meaning. This would have allowed the disparate parts to work on the level they were intended, rather than operate like a slideshow of overly incongruent and unpleasant imagery. On some level, Reeder has the benefit of creating a critic-proof film, as criticism can easily be countered by stating, "Well, you just didn't get it." Perhaps this is true, but the more likely truth is that there simply isn't anything here to get. The disc certainly looks and sounds great, but the lack of supplements is very disappointing. While it didn't hold much value for me, it's probably worth a rental for those interested in surreal filmmaking – although you'd be better off picking up something by Lynch or Buñuel instead.