Director Calvin Lee Reeder makes films that have a very limited audience. Often a mix of black comedy and insane surrealist horror, Reeder’s films are very distinctively his own and have the ability to exhilarate or alienate viewers in equal measure. Due to the huge quantity of strangeness often found in his work, Reeder has often been compared to David Lynch which is initially how I became aware of this director. After watching his debut feature, “The Oregonian”, I found myself disappointed in the comparison even though I found the film to be incredibly bizarre. I thought that “The Oregonian” was just weird for weird’s sake (something I do not believe Lynch’s film are) and I was actually frustrated whilst watching it. At the same time though I thought Reeder did have talent, especially at creating a kind of unnerving suspense but I just couldn’t really get into the world of “The Oregonian”. However the film stayed with me and I actually sought out Reeder’s previous short films which I ended up enjoying a great deal. My favourite was a short called “The Rambler” which Reeder has now expanded on and made into a feature.
The film is about an unnamed man who after being released from a stint in prison, thumbs his way across America in an attempt to reach his brother’s farm and re-connect with his family. Along the way, the rambler meets and comes into contact with a number of increasingly weird people as he heads towards his unknowing fate.
That synopsis of “The Rambler” that I have just written, whilst correct, does not give you any real indication of just what this film is really like. Like Reeder’s previous film, this is a seriously disturbing and very weird film, however compared to “The Oregonian”, his latest feature is a much more successful effort. Again, what I loved most about the film was the atmosphere that Reeder creates. The film is almost set in a nightmare reality where nothing ever makes sense. Things appear to be set in reality except everything is slightly skewed. At the beginning of the film, the rambler’s interactions with the strangers he meets come across as very funny (in the blackest sense), but the longer his journey continues, the darker and more weird and horrific these meetings become. Somewhat surprisingly, I think that the film is much more successful during the first half of the film when it is actually quite funny. The transition to the horror of the second half is actually quite jarring and I do not think has been handled very well at all. It just sort of happens without any explanation, but once you are in what is now a journey through hell, it is still quite enjoyable.
Having been a fan of the short film, I was aware at some of the places this feature was going to go, as certain scenes have been totally recreated for this feature. The Rambler’s meeting with a scientist who has the ability to record people’s dreams onto VHS (!) is all from the short but I thought this expanded version was a much richer and funnier experience than in the short. The joke is that the machine doesn’t work, rather it explodes the head of the person it is placed on, and it is the way that both the scientist and the rambler react to each failing that makes it so funny. It is not the horror that they have just killed someone, but rather disappointment that they have failed yet again. It is dark comedy but I found it hilarious, especially the rambler’s non-reactions. The other story that I loved was the hustler that the rambler meets and who convinces him to go into bare-knuckle fighting due to the fact that he cannot lose. Again this is another hilarious segment, particularly the way the hustler ends one of the fights when it isn’t going as he planned.
The horror comes in the second half and mainly comes to fruition when the rambler meets a young girl who he falls in love with (played by regular Reeder muse, Lindsay Pulsipher). What initially starts out as a retreat from all the weirdness heaped upon him, turns out to be the beginning of a much bleaker hell as he regularly sees the girl dying or maimed in the most bloody of ways. Strangely though, the girl keeps reappearing along his journey only to die yet again, and these scenes play out like a nightmare or fever dream. It is this section that the film becomes incredibly bloody and obsessed with fluids of all kinds, as there is also a disgusting extended vomit scene here too.
What holds all of this insanity together is an amazing performance from Dermot Mulroney who plays the titular character. He just gets the movie and the character he has been hired to perform, he really is brilliant. He comes across as a cool guy, where nothing ever fazes him. He breezes through life without a care in the world even when the world he is living in is insane. However, as cool as the rambler appears to be on the outside, if you take it that the majority of the events of the film reflect what is going on in his head, he is a seriously messed up individual. I guess his lack of reaction to all the horror around him just highlights this. In the original short film, Calvin Lee Reeder himself played the rambler and very well too, I might add. When I heard that he had hired an established actor like Mulroney for the feature, I wrongly anticipated that it would not work, but Mulroney underplays his role to perfection. The film relies more on his reactions than him expressing himself through dialogue and in my opinion, he gets it spot on. As I mentioned above, Reeder regular Lindsay Pulsipher shows up yet again and is also excellent. Having appeared in all of Reeder’s shorts and features, she obviously understands his point of view on the world and what he wants in a movie, and she never appears overawed by some of the extreme things she has to do in any of his films.
“The Rambler” was shot on a very small budget; it is your typical indie film, but the way the film looks, you would never have guessed it. The beautiful lighting and widescreen compositions from cinematographer Dave McFarland give the film a look much bigger than its budget would have allowed. It is so professionally put together that even when the visuals on-screen become confusing, you find yourself still admiring them for their beauty. Visually the film looks like a big budget western, even though the finished project is anything but.
Overall, “The Rambler” is a film that is going to appeal to a very small audience, and yet Reeder not only knows this, he embraces it. He has made the film he wanted on screen and hasn’t pandered to anyone to make it more understandable, which you really have to respect him for. While the film is definitely episodic, for the majority of the film, I really enjoyed going on this insane trip with “The Rambler”, but I honestly do not think I could recommend the film to anyone else I know. It is far too out there, for them to enjoy. For me, though, I think this is a film I will revisit (if just to try and work out what exactly is going on in the second half of the film – did I mention that the film gives no answers to the questions posed within?) and it has made me want to go back and watch Calvin Lee Reeder’s previous feature “The Oregonian” again.