{Movie Review} Celeste M. Cooper Shines in Revenge Thriller Range Runners

Director Philip S. Plowden’s thriller Range Runners is not for the squeamish. It’s a brutal 90 minutes that serves up gore and bodily injury.

The film’s highpoint is its lead. Celeste M. Cooper shines as Mel, a runner with a chip on her shoulder, haunted by memories of her father. She’s a protagonist to root for, well-crafted and layered. Cooper’s performance alone makes Range Runners worthy of a stream.

The film begins with a flashback between young Mel (Mariah Gordon) and her stern-faced father, Howard (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), at the track. This relationship drives much of Mel’s story and her reason for venturing into the woods for what her sister Chloe (Tiffany Renee Johnson) calls some “masochistic caveman shit.” She wants to clock in miles, and it’s only revealed in the closing minutes why she’s so obsessed with hiking in the woods alone. Not long into her journey, she encounters two drug dealers, Wayland (Sean Patrick Leonard) and Jared (Michael B. Woods).

Mel gets tangled up in their affairs after she stops to bandage Jared’s blistered and swollen feet when she finds him sitting on a log. It’s apparent from his lack of hiking gear that Jared didn’t plan to trek into the woods. Mel suspects as much and decides to move along. The next morning, she wakes to find the men looming over the fire she made the previous night. By then, it’s clear they’re not going to let her go. They steal her pack and survival gear, leaving her for dead.

The rest of the film draws a careful balance between a solid character arc and a gripping thriller, as Mel endures one pain after the other, trying to escape the men. In one scene, she presses her wrists to a smoldering log to free herself of cord that the men wrapped around her wrists. It’s an edge-of-your seat moment in a film that contains many.

Photo Courtesy of Fatal Funnel Films

Mel’s character development unfolds through flashbacks. Howard pushed her to be an Olympic athlete. He stood at the track, clocking her seconds. If her time didn’t meet his standards, he made her run again and again.  Her identity is linked to memories of her father. After tumbling down a cliff and having an imaginary conversation with her sister, Mel admits she never wanted to be an Olympic athlete. That dream belonged to her father.

Mel says more than once that it’s the distance she’s after, and a few shots feature a first person POV from Mel’s perspective, dashing through the woods. Mel runs from the past, but at the same time, she recalls how her father loved the woods because it’s the only time he felt truly free. On the one hand, Mel wants to escape the past, while on the other hand, she appreciates the freedom that her father sought. She, too, seeks it.

Cooper excels at playing a hard-edged protagonist, determined to overcome the physical and emotional pain she endure, while dealing with her captors. She pushes her body beyond its limits in the role. The flashbacks also make for a well-drawn character. Despite Mel’s tough exterior, we understand where she’s been. The flashbacks deepen her character arc and lead to an emotional conclusion.

The dynamic between Wayland and Jared works well. Wayland’s overly macho character contrasts Jared’s more compassionate personality. Jared wants to let Mel go, while Wayland makes several jabs about his masculinity and his wife. He’s so absurd that at one point, he pisses in the woods, thumps his chest, and yells to the animals that it’s his territory. In other scenes, however, he’s brutal and intimidating. Leonard’s performance transitions from absurdity to menacing quite well, often within a single scene.

Photo Courtesy of Fatal Funnel Films

While the violence never reaches the level of I Spit on Your Grave or even Revenge, there are plenty of scenes that aren’t for the faint of heart. Mel endures hell, especially physically, sustaining one injury after the other. Yet, the violence serves her story arc and feels impactful and purposeful. Additionally, she is a female protagonist who isn’t objectified. She decides to hunt and keep a watchful eye on the men, as they watch her. She, like Jared, is the perfect foil to Wayland’s excessive machismo. Wayland mocks Jared’s masculinity, but Jared evokes the viewer’s sympathy. He shows shreds of dignity and kindness absent in Wayland. Mel, meanwhile, is strong and willful enough to confront Wayland head-on.

Overall, Range Runners is a solid revenge thriller that paints the woods red. Cooper’s rich performance makes for a complex and tough protagonist. The men who try to trap her have no idea who they’re dealing with, and watching her battle them makes for suspenseful entertainment. The film builds to an affecting conclusion that feels well-earned.

Range Runners dropped on VOD on September 8.