Range Runners is not solely a woman vs. nature survival story nor a revenge thriller. Nonetheless, it integrates qualities from both genres in telling the story of Mel, a young woman on a range running expedition who winds up fighting for her life after crossing paths with a pair of desperate criminals on the lam. Range running is the practice of sprinting through the woods for extended periods of time, a kind of extreme hybrid of hiking, running, and camping. Mel is not there for the isolation or sense of calm, though. “It’s the distance I’m after,” she explains. What becomes increasingly clear to the audience, if not to Mel herself, is the symbolic significance of running through the woods carrying a hefty load on her back. Mel is determined not to let her baggage slow her down, convinced she could outrun it. That conviction is put to the test.
The film begins with and is punctuated by flashbacks showing a young Mel on a track field being trained by her father, a man whose demeanor is a cross between Earl Woods and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Indeed, her father was in the service, and the ethos he is engraining into his daughter is that of military excellence. “We are not here to make it easy for ourselves. We are here to train,” he declares as he stands with his preteen daughter in the pouring rain, a lesson about embracing discomfort. “You have no idea what your body is capable of until you’ve felt the absolute limit of what you think is physically possible,” he drills to her on another occasion when she sustains an injury. “What if I faint?” Mel cries. “Then you will know what your limits are… and figure out how to push past them.” Because of the dominant, heroic way in which her father is photographed, it is not wholly clear at first if the film is allied with his extreme mind-over-matter philosophy or if it intends to challenge it. What becomes apparent is that this is a deliberate choice and that the film will not seek to answer this complex question in just one way.
“…a young woman on a range running expedition who winds up fighting for her life…”
During a particularly symbolic range run—we find out why later—Mel comes across Wayland and Jared on a deserted trail. While we don’t know exactly what transgression has led these two into the woods with hastily patched up wounds, it’s clear they are bad news, particularly Wayland. When the two men follow her, steal her camping pack, physically assaulting her in the process, and leave her for dead, Mel is forced to martial the inner strength honed through her father’s lessons in order to survive.
It is in these sequences of physical endurance, pain, and triumph where Celeste Cooper’s performance really shines. This is a grunting, screaming, physically demanding role. She manages to be both powerful and fierce and also vulnerable, in over her head at the same time. When she is left strapped to a post and has to break free by ripping through a leather belt at her body’s expense, her exertion and intensity are legitimately felt and couldn’t help but call to mind The Bride from Kill Bill breaking through her buried coffin.
"…forced to martial the inner strength honed through her father’s lessons..."