SXSW Review: The Rambler


[From March 9th – 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX. Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!]

I’ve seen a lot of movies recommended to me on sheer f**ked-upness. Some of them are filthy little f**ked-up oddities like Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik, and some are f**ked-up works of art like Pier Pasolini’s Salò. In fact, one of my favorite movies in high school, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, wound up on my radar because of how f**ked up a few of the scenes sounded.

And so before watching a documentary at SXSW, I heard someone tell his friend that he had to see The Rambler because it was totally f**ked up. I figured I’d make some time to check it out, if only to see where it fits in the f**ked-up canon.

Lesson: I should stop eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

The Rambler
Director: Calvin Lee Reeder
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

The Rambler starts out with a brutal depiction of prison life straight out of the exploitation movies of old: a place of concrete, brawls, and plug-ugly people. It’s all violence and harshness, which makes our nameless title character’s (Dermot Mulroney) release a brief departure into normalcy. The sky is wide open and full of possibility. And then there’s a strange blip in the sky: a doot-dooting UFO which recurs throughout the film. Something isn’t right in the real world either, and there’s a strange series of jumps through radio static between scenes, as if a dial is being turned to a new station. These are two of the more effective repetitions in The Rambler, though the plot relies on another kind of repetition I’ll get to in a minute that isn’t so effective.

Our hero returns to his wife or girlfriend played by Natasha Leone at her trashiest. She’s all sand and sweat and booze, and she’s been sleeping around with our hero’s cadre of grimy friends. Rather than deal with her and stay in his dead end job in a pawn shop, the rambler takes to the road to reconnect with his brother in Oregon. Out there he’ll have a place to call home; a welcome journey since his old home isn’t what it used to be. (Though maybe it’s exactly like it used to be and he just doesn’t like it anymore.)

The first third of The Rambler plays sort of like a deadpan splatter road movie. Little moments of absurd humor, misadventure, and strange characters keeps the film unpredictable and moving forward. There’s a mad scientist with a malfunctioning dream machine and a card game with some maniacs that leads to some illegal street fighting. It’s all fucked up in a funny way, and Mulroney’s character chugs through it with a stone face and and cool detachment that fits in the dark cartoon world of the film. There’s a sense that this is how he got through life behind bars.

But then a pattern begins to emerge. Wherever the rambler goes, he sees a certain woman played by Lindsay Pulsipher. First she’s a gal on horseback who flirts and loans him a bike; next she’s a waitress in a podunk diner; later she’s the victim of a horrible accident. Each time we’re given snippets of the rambler’s dreams or memories, ones which may suggest how he got into jail or some deep regret. It could all just be part of some grand hallucination that goes back to the blipping in the sky and the twists of the radio dial, but it’s never quite stated. Instead, we get more fucked up stuff, and I became less engaged with the film as it became more fucked up.

Thinking back to the fucked up movies I like, there’s more going on in them than mere fucked-upness. There’s loads of missing limbs and bodily fluids and wrongness in The Rambler, but I kept wonder what else it had to offer. In between the shocks and loud screeches coming from the screen, there are these moments of silence and stillness. The dialogue comes out in dribbles between pauses. Sometimes it’s mannered and comic, while other times it’s like a irritating riff on Lost Highway without the novelty of that film. These silences and trickles are meant to be meditative (maybe), but I just felt like they were moments of dead air — like those long stretches of white noise between stations on the AM dial.

The continual reappearances of Pulsipher’s character in The Rambler lead to an unavoidable sense of pretentiousness. This robbed the film of its playfulness and made all the oddness seem like a kind of posturing — weirdness for the sake of weirdness in order to substitute for multiple deficiencies, as if playing the David Lynch card renders criticism moot. It doesn’t. (And Lynch himself usually isn’t doing it for its own sake.) Just because there’s weird stuff and fucked up stuff there doesn’t mean there’s more to it than that. Sometimes a fucked up moment is just a fucked up moment, but with The Rambler I can’t help but feel that writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder is trying to evoke something else that’s not quite coming through.

Why return to this relationship when there’s a resistance to giving it some roots? We’re given suggestions of a past between these two, but without the emotional, psychological, or aesthetic payoff of this relationship, it’s merely unfinished material to buffer between the fucked up stuff. Instead of a sense of payoff or slow revelation, we just get yellow vomit and lots of it. Maybe there’s meaning there when we see the rambler and the girl together, but I felt like the repetitions were used to generate meaning where meaning was absent.

The last two-thirds of The Rambler loses the demented charm of the first third, and it just turns into a mostly somber and shriek-filled mess, albeit a stylish one. It’s a shame too since the movie has potential to be a nutzoid road movie full of crass gags and brutal humor or a surreal Americana-on-crack road movie. Instead it feels like a half-realized art-horror movie hiding behind a half-realized sleaze-and-violence movie. These two things are full of promise, but when they meet in the middle, they don’t quite complement each other.

The rambler is on his back and down and out at one point in the film. One of the oddball side characters comes to help him out. He tells the rambler that he could have died. He also asks the rambler where he’s headed. To both of these, the rambler replies that he doesn’t care.

Ditto, buddy.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.