After four years in prison, The Rambler (Dermot Mulroney) is a free man, and it's not long before his urge to drift sets in. His friends, who greet him with a homecoming party, are obnoxious and rude. His girlfriend (Natasha Lyonne) is burying herself in a pile of empty bottles, and furious at him for not jumping back into their relationship. He's been given back his old job at a pawnshop, but the manager hates his guts. With a guitar strapped over one shoulder and a duffel bag on the other, The Rambler hits the road with the goal of heading up to Oregon, where his brother has a ranch, only to meet an elaborate cast of strange characters, including a blonde (Lindsay Pulsipher) who keeps popping up wherever The Rambler happens to go...
The Rambler is a paralyzing cinematic experience, stuck between successful directorial button-pushing and a frustrating lack of purpose. Director / screenwriter Calvin Lee Reeder wants to evoke the surreal terror of Davids Lynch or Cronenberg, and he's sort of successful, piling on a number of disturbing sights and sounds that will undoutbedly linger after the film is over. However, after a promising first half that sets up a weird and colorful world, the second half turns into a tiring exercise in shock imagery that never solidifies into some sort of grand design. Reeder would probably say that his influences would never spell out their ideas, but there's a vast desert between the dream-like labyrinthe of a Mulholland Dr. and The Rambler's disjointed second half.
The first person to pick up The Rambler is The Scientist (James Cady), an elderly man perpetually decked out in a lab coat, rubber gloves, and upside-down glasses, armed with a trunk full of mummies and a machine he claims will record dreams onto VHS. It's an interesting idea that sets up the film to contain dream-like qualities, but the machine doesn't work properly, hitting its subjects with a disturbing side effect. The Rambler is also plagued by strange lights in the sky, which flash and beep at random times. It's a hell of a hook, but again, Reeder doesn't really develop the idea any further, appearing to write it off with a touch that's so subtle I might be imagining it.
The central thread of the film concerns The Rambler and The Girl, who appears throughout The Rambler's journey as different people, coming and going as she pleases. Reeder includes quick-cut montages of images that feel as if they're going to be part of some buried memory or premonition, explaining who the girl is, was, or could end up becoming. Instead, Reeder lazily suggest the girl is simply symbolic of something that The Rambler can't have, leaving many of those hallucinatory touches without any real pay off. The film doesn't have any interest in exploring The Rambler or The Girl or how they fit into the movie. It's a step removed from weird for weirdness' sake: a bunch of half-baked ideas that don't add up to anything than they are individually.
For a low-budget effort, Reeder makes the most out of dusty desert plains, and whoever cast the bit players in the movie deserves a medal for their ability to find distinctive-looking people to give the whole world an off-kilter feel. In addition to Mulroney, who gives an appealingly stoic performance, there's also Dale (Paul Blott), a self-promotional con man who signs The Rambler up for a couple of ill-advised boxing matches, in one of the film's funnier and more effective passages. Pulsipher is committed to the role and lands pretty much every note that Reeder asks for, including a stretch near the end that consists of nothing but screaming. That's the kind of movie The Rambler is: it's creepy, it's weird, it's definitely unique, and it doesn't really add up to anything without more to fill in the blanks.
Although The Rambler is a film that insistently refuses to be summed up in a single image, the amped up painted artwork effectively suggests the horror vibes and showcases the movie's wide range of weird characters. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly Blu-Ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The Rambler gets a detailed but murky 2.35:1 1080p AVC presentation. Fine detail is predictably excellent, but black levels are consistently weak, especially during night scenes. Although there's still a range to darkness, preserving the depth of the image, it constantly looks hazy, lacking the richness that true blacks would provide. This also creates the occasional color highlight that appears improperly saturated, standing out around shadow that ought to be darker. Digital grain is not very noticeable but can appear a little noisy (possibly on purpose), and real transfer scientists will notice a little bit of banding, but it's the flat blacks that really hurt the image.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is a little stronger, with plenty of very unusual choices to show off. Without giving too much about the film away, let's just say there are a number of unusual audio effects (beeping, static, quick-cut montages, crowds, gunfire), all creating a strangely unsettling experience. Music and other ambience is nicely immersive, adding to the overall eerie tone of listening to The Rambler. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles.
None. Trailers for Shadow People, Officer Down, Excision, and Mimesis play before the main menu.
It's entirely possible that Reeder's previous film, The Oregonian, or his next film, whatever that may be, will offer enough focus to make something out of Reeder's ability to disturb. I can't deny that I have some level of respect for the movie -- it's certainly driven by a strong voice, and I know there are people who might appreciate that even without much substance underneath. A rental might be worthwhile for that kind of viewer...as long as they don't expect more than that.
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