LIST CANDIDATE: THE RAMBLER (2013)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Dermot Mulroney,

PLOT: A nameless man is released from prison and hitchhikes across the West heading for a job at his brother’s ranch, meeting absurd characters along the way.

Still from The Rambler (2013)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a defiantly weird and dryly funny mix of dusty movie clichés and arthouse surrealism, set in that timeless, existential American movie desert where the cowboys and hobos of myth once roamed.

COMMENTS: The Rambler is sure to be marketed as a surrealistic horror film, which is a shame. I think people will enjoy this druggy road trip through the Weird West more if they go in with the mindset that they are attending a black comedy with horror bits. The title character—who is almost never seen without his rumpled cowboy hat, sunglasses, and a cigarette dangling from his lip—is a parody of every ultra-macho B-movie man-with-no-name existential outlaw since Clint Eastwood. When he briefly takes a job as a hobo boxer, he’s about to whip his shades off to fight his opponent (who, rather unfairly, has a nasty hook for a hand), but his promoter advises him to keep them on because they “look cool.” He’s so unflappable that when someone tosses a severed limb into his lap he brushes it away and shrugs nonchalantly. He’s a man of few words—mostly the word “no”—and at one point, when “the girl” presses him on his feelings, we see why, as he stumbles to put together a coherent sentence. His blank stoicism as he slouches his way through a world of redneck nightmares is a running joke; the only character who gets much of a reaction from him is the living corpse who pukes a gallon of yellow bile onto his face while he’s handcuffed to a bedpost, and even then the Rambler registers only mild annoyance (he also forgets to clean the crusty vomit off his face before he resumes hitchhiking, and wonders why no one will pick him up). The movie is so deadpan in its absurdity that it’s the sincerely intended horror sequences, like a trip to a family home that resembles a hallucinatory funeral parlor, that seem out of place. The movie’s final sequence grows from an effectively sick and squeamish nightmare notion, but arguably overplays it a bit, with the incessant screaming becoming annoying rather than horrific. The knockout oddball character is a mummy-toting professor who records dreams onto VHS, although he hasn’t quite perfected the technology yet. Lindsay Pulsipher is the sunshiny femme fatale (and horrific specter of commitment) who won’t stay dead and who haunts the Rambler throughout his psychedelic odyssey. Mulroney inhabits the title role like a suit of clothes that haven’t been changed for weeks. Given the picaresque, incident-to-incident nature of the movie, it’s necessarily hit-and-miss, but the road movie architecture serves the surreal format—there is just enough loose structure to keep us grounded, as we know the Rambler is on a journey with a clear destination in mind, even if we suspect it’s a mirage and settling down into a steady job as a cowhand goes against his rambling nature. When I attended Reeder’s debut movie, The Oregonian, almost a fourth of the midnight audience walked out before the ending. For The Rambler I only spotted a single early exit. With The Rambler‘s exploding heads, severed limbs, and corpse-eating dogs, the lack of flight into the aisles wasn’t because the material was less grotesque or shocking than the prior film’s notorious “rainbow pee” sequence. Perhaps it was because word of The Rambler‘s eccentricities had gotten around and the audience was better prepared this time, or maybe I simply saw the movie with a tougher-minded, more weird-friendly audience. I think the answer to the conundrum is simpler, though: The Rambler is a better and more watchable movie than The Oregonian, largely due to the abundant humor. If Reeder keeps improving his craft at this rate, he’ll have to abdicate his title as “the walkout king of Sundance.”

Throughout the movie the Rambler carries a guitar, although he rarely plays it, because, as he says, “I haven’t found a song yet.” Per Reeder’s post-screening statements, he based the character on the wandering hobo folksinger archetype, a la Woody Guthrie (the title itself might have been suggested by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who always wore a cowboy hat). The Rambler has been picked up for distribution by Anchor Bay and is currently available on video-on-demand; it releases on DVD June 25.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Rambler just seems weird for its own sake and in love with cheap shock value… The overall effort comes off like a half-assed pastiche of the entire cult section of the old Kim’s Video on Bleecker Street.”–Steve Erickson, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

8 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: THE RAMBLER (2013)”

  1. Just saw this today.
    If any movie is going to have Calvin Reeder’s name included on this list, I think this one is going to be it. There’s some severely bizarre stuff in this movie, and the ending is just one confounding cherry on a head-scratching sundae.
    Awesome stuff.

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  2. I saw this movie on a first date at the Sydney Film Festival. Remarkably, I got a second. I thought it was a bit slight, especially since the other movie I saw at that festival, Upstream Colour, was a masterpiece.

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