Much in the way comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim push the boundaries of conventional humor with material seemingly culled from a schizophrenic’s fever dream, The Rambler presents a similarly unusual, fucked-up approach to matters of cinematic form, storytelling, and everything in between, and the results are as tedious as they are spirited. Sinister, comical, aggravating, and audacious, Calvin Reeder’s film is nothing short of an affront.
Not unlike Reeder’s polarizing debut, The Oregonian, The Rambler follows the most minimal of plotlines. Dermot Mulroney stars as the Rambler, a simple cowboy who’s just been released from a New Mexico prison, finding only dissatisfaction on the outside with a dead-end job, lowlife friends, and the unfaithful girlfriend he left behind. So he sets off to reunite with his brother, who owns a cattle ranch in eastern Oregon. Reeder uses this straightforward setup to essentially lull the viewer into a false sense of security before delivering a series of increasingly disturbing, hallucinatory vignettes that distance the film from its modest beginning.
As the Rambler traverses the lonely highways and back roads of our country’s southwest, he encounters characters both colorful and macabre. There’s the zany doctor (James Cady) with a homemade dream-recording device that literally blows people’s minds, an angelic waitress (The Oregonian’s Lindsay Pulsipher) who suffers multiple bloody deaths, and a naked, half-human/half-monster that haunts the Rambler for reasons unexplained. Scenes of deliriously abject violence and gore force their way into the increasingly unintelligible plot, and before long, Reeder’s road movie unravels into a surreal Grand Guignol.
Not only does Reeder abandon virtually all facets of conventional narrative cinema, he also seems completely determined to bully the audience into submission via imagery designed solely to disturb. Like Inland Empire, essentially a three-hour reel of David Lynch’s nightmares, the film is anchored in the sort of dream logic that may only make complete sense to its creator. Reeder’s dogged refusal to allow even the smallest semblance of standard movie comforts—likeable characters, narrative logic, easily identifiable themes—to worm their way into the film may be hubristic, but by that same token, it’s refreshing and revitalizing to watch someone assertively rattle the cages of cinematic form. After all, there’s more than one way to tell a story.