A scientific research team investigates and documents the supernatural phenomena surrounding the disappearance of a cattle ranchers 10 year old son. Inspired by true events that shocked the paranormal community around the world.
The directorial debut of actor Devin McGinn (“Crash Course with Shaun White”), our latest offering is yet another found footage film. What should naturally follow this dubious declaration is a long-winded diatribe burning up 100 words or so with what any critic can state quite efficiently in two: Enough already. Actually, two completely different terms came to mind but I’m not allowed to use one of them.
In an effort to curb my building hatred for this garden weed of a subgenre, I’m going to list five annoyances in no particular order that occur in nearly every found footage flick in existence, then accept them all as a given for the duration of this review:
1. Someone continues filming after any sane person would have ditched the camera.
2. If there is a time code, there will be continuity errors.
3. The second half is a cacophony of yelling, like a loud Robert Altman movie.
4. In found footage world, police evidence is always professionally edited.
5. If you recall three characters’ names by the end, join Mensa.
“Skinwalker Ranch” utilizes events of historical record as a launching pad for it’s story. The property does exist (named after the Native American shape-shifter legend), on a large parcel of land in Utah known throughout the years for various paranormal events. Livestock mutilations, crop circles, unexplainable lights, the list goes on for all that has been reported in this region. Our latest opus embraces each and every one like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” did conspiracy theories, attempting to flesh them out under the conceit of its tired concept. It’s a sporadic mess indeed, but “Ranch” somehow manages to mostly pull it off.
A lion’s share of the credit for this minor miracle rests upon veteran character actor Jon Gries, who portrays owner of the titular homestead Hoyt Miller. Gries is what I refer to as a “that one guy” actor, who you know you’ve seen hundreds of times but cannot place. Looking back on the countless roles he’s had over the years, I was shocked how many great performances had slipped from memory. How the hell could I forget his hilarious turn as Uncle Rico in the love-it-or-hate-it “Napoleon Dynamite” from 2004?
Gries has one of his largest parts to date here as a desperate father who allows investigators into his house following the disappearance of his ten year-old son Cody. It’s an effective moment to begin with (following the perfunctory title card blah-blah, of course), the boy vanishing as his mother films him playing on his birthday. Accolades to Mom for actually dropping the damn camera the moment she realizes Cody is gone. Sorry friends, forgot my mandate there for a second. Won’t happen again.
That’s all we see of Hoyt’s wife, as she is written off to the loony bin when the film picks up months after the incident. The individuals who make up the research team are eggheads and technicians (not one psychic in the bunch, thankfully), sent from the corporation Modern Defense Enterprises (MDE). Along the way, they stop in a nearby town to speak with citizens who know of the Millers. As many other faux docs have proven, it’s a slick way to knock out a mouthful of exposition, but is out-of-place in this instance. What practical use a group dispatched there specifically for scientific documentation would have for speculation, I couldn’t tell you.
McGinn also appears in front of the camera as newcomer to the party Cameron, a journalist brought in as an objective set of eyes. He is introduced to the rest of the crew by team leader Sam (Steve Berg) once he arrives on site. All are natural enough performers (possibly more polished than required), but there are too many of them for all to leave much of an impression. However, it is appreciated that “Ranch” takes a beat for the members to state their names and tasks directly to the camera, affording the viewer an easier time differentiating once events turn chaotic.
And turn chaotic they do, as “Ranch” wastes not in getting to the supernatural shenanigans. A deafening feedback squeal awakens them the first night, and they find the roof covered with dead bats as a result. Medicine man Ahote (Michael Horse of “Twin Peaks”) is brought in to bless the property, which culminates in his minor freak-out and hasty exit, warning them to do the same. At least he wasn’t a psychic. Scenes like this, as well as Cameron’s pointless videos that add an unwelcome “Real World” vibe, do nothing to forward the endeavor and feel left in as padding. Luckily, they are few and far between.
So much is thrown at the audience after Ahote’s episode, it would be understandable for one to become overwhelmed. From the appearance of Cody’s ghost (astral projection, mass hallucination, what have you) in the kitchen each night to an enormous wolf creature that receives much more screen time in the latter half than you’d expect, McGinn and screenwriter Adam Ohler bombard with disparate elements. Nothing is brought together in any true cohesive fashion, and you have to admire the consistency of leaving every single end loose. Even the closing moments add yet another unrelated dimension to the piece, as if the boys just couldn’t help themselves before rolling credits.
Many will likely find this infuriating, but I dug the freewheeling and crafty style of “Ranch.” The aforementioned tropes are all present and accounted for whilst it simultaneously eschews them, appearing in both cast and presentation as an exercise in actual film making more so than any similar offering has. This detracts from the fright factor, but there are still jolts. A sequence of old film from a secret MDE lab that stood in the area decades prior is a wildly unnerving bit of business, as a missing girl is discovered on the side of the road and brought back to a quarantine tent. Her examination does not end well for the doctors.
Budgetary concerns aside, “Skinwalker Ranch” could have dumped the time codes and shaky-cam and been released under the guise of . . . well, a “real movie.” Perhaps McGinn is a fan of this stuff, an affection I no longer share that led master Barry Levinson to helm “The Bay.” Regardless of motivation, he’s delivered a solid work full of exuberance and utterly devoid of subtlety. If he sold himself a little short by choosing the found footage path, so be it.