Sundance Review: “The Rambler”

“This isn’t a horror movie,” writer-director Calvin Reeder told the audience before the World Premiere of his new feature The Rambler. “It’s a Midnight Movie. We’re way less conservative than a horror movie.” By which Reeder seems to mean that he doesn’t need to follow cinematic conventions the way traditional horror movies do. And yet to say that Reeder’s film is more liberated might imply that his work lacks structure or intent. There are many lesser movies that attempt this type of manic gory psychedelia, but generally they are sloppy and effortless, artless and unintelligent. Reeder’s films, by contrast, are meticulously planned (every sound effect is in the script, every flash frame is storyboarded), and the arc of The Rambler references classic b-cinema directly, while moreover standing firmly on the shoulders of Homeric epic and Becket-like eternal returns.

The Rambler (played with a searing deadpan by Dermot Mulroney) is a man just out of jail, trying to make his way across the country to a secure job and “soft landing” on his brother’s quaint and familial horse farm. Along the way, every hitch-hiked ride and roadside bar stop presents our stoic hero with a new Odyssean mythical challenge, from gambling boxing impresario to a mummy-making dream stealer. All along he his led by or followed by or haunted by his Penelope (Lindsay Pulsipher), a Siren who gets her head smashed in while singing, a Circe who’s elixirs cause her vomit-spewing, monstrous transformation. Her endless deaths eventually chase The Rambler into the domestic life, but he has been forever changed by the journey, and has to hit the road again (again, as with Odysseus, seeking a nihilist destruction through adventure).

Once again Calvin Reeder has carefully woven multiple layers of meaning within his intense splatter-gore effects and hilarious oddball scenarios, making The Rambler a smart and wildly fun journey.