Ridge Runners (2017)

7 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Recently, I saw filmmaker Hunter West’s debut feature “Ridge Runners” again (my third time seeing it at a film festival). At the Q&A following the screening, West mentioned how difficult it was to get the finished film out there, due to its content. The issue that takes center-stage in this tense dramatic thriller is a little girl as a victim of child sex trafficking.

“Ridge Runners” is a very disturbing film, and that’s not just because of the subject matter. In fact, none of the deeds associated with the central crime are portrayed on-screen (thank God). What is chilling and unsettling about the film is what is suggested throughout the film and what our protagonists (who are a duo of police detectives investigating the disappearance of a little girl) are trying to find out about. And there are some characters whose true colors are revealed late in the film—they truly made my skin crawl in the ways they explain what’s happening and why.

So, there you go—the film is well-made and very ominous, and the horrifying stuff is only implied. And yet it was a tough sell…think about that for a moment.

The message of “Ridge Runners,” directed by West and written by Austin Lott, is “Human Trafficking happens everywhere,” as stated by the film’s website (http://www.ridgerunnersfilm.com/) and a truly unsettling prologue (followed by a caption that states one in five human trafficking victims is a child). Our protagonists, police detectives Rachel Willow (played by Jennica Schwartzman) and Rob Shepherd (Austin Haley), discover this horrible truth upon investigating the mysterious disappearance of a 12-year-old girl. The more they uncover, the more horrifying the truth becomes. West reportedly was inspired to make this film because he heard of actual sex trafficking happening in his small town (and the film also takes place in a small town), and so he and Lott set out to make a film as a warning that this type of thing isn’t just an international problem or even a city problem—it can happen anywhere.

But it’s one thing to make a public service announcement about it; it’s another to make it work well. How’s the film itself? It’s essentially a TV-crime-show episode doubled in length and with arguably more detail in description (though not even that much). But it’s very effectively done, and the credit for that goes to West’s directing, Lott’s writing, and the acting, which also includes chillingly good performances by Charlee Graham as the girl’s mother coping with her daughter’s disappearance and Jason Thompson as her employer at a racetrack called The Ridge, among other fine supporting players. A good portion of the film is dialogue and performance, and while some parts are veering close to overuse of exposition (particularly early in the proceedings, when the girl’s mother is questioned by the detectives), it still works overall.

Some would say the film goes for the easy way out in the final act, but the outcome satisfied me, and I’m certain it satisfied many other festival audience members as well. I won’t go into it here, lest I give away potential spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

“Ridge Runners” is an intriguing, effective and chilling tale about how evil can exist anywhere. And it wasn’t done in a preachy or overdone manner; instead, it was handled in a relaxed manner, more dignified than you’d expect with this material. The film is currently playing in festivals at this time, but it is now set for distribution. You can catch more news about that as it surfaces on the film’s website and also on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RidgeRunnersFilm/ It’s definitely worth checking out.

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