Supposedly, Jesse doesn't fit in. Ranchero's central character, played by Roger Gutierrez, is an aging country boy gone to seek his fortune in the concrete sprawl of Los Angeles. Director Richard Kaponas makes a big deal of pointing out Jesse's fish-out-of-water status. He's a guy who has lived his whole life on the same northern California cattle ranch where his Mexican-emigre father toiled for four decades. His childhood friend Tom (Brian Eric Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay) mocks him for his unusual sense of style, and the unsavory characters in his low-rent L.A. neighborhood stare at him as if he rolled into town on a tractor wearing overalls and a straw hat.
Except that the reality is there's little about Jesse that would make him an unusual sight in the city. His '50s-inspired wardrobe, meticulously maintained pompadour, Buddy Holly glasses and tattoos give him an air of carefully considered rockabilly chic that make him an easy fit in the hipster hangouts where he eventually finds a regular bar stool. In fact, he looks more in his element there than one suspects he ever would in the rural ranchlands outside Sacramento; on the surface, Jesse's arrival in L.A. seems more like a long-delayed homecoming than a menacing welcome to the jungle.
It's inconsistencies like these, the details that never seem to add up plausibly, that do the most harm to Kaponas' debut feature. When Jesse leaves the ranch, his boss improbably insists on giving him his own brand new truck, claiming that Jesse's ride — which looks perfectly serviceable apart from a few splashes of mud — won't make the trip. When he reaches L.A., many of the people he meets speak in a wooden approximation of urban slang, a writer's impression of some remembered words and phrases rather than the rhythm of real conversation.
Jesse doesn't have much of a plan for his new life; for the movie, that means the first half of the film is just as aimless as he is. Kaponas shows — in too much mundane detail — a 38-year-old settling into a new life, finding a job and slowly realizing that Tom isn't the guy he knew growing up. And taking a shine, too, to Lil' Bit (Christina Woods), a temperamental and troubled young woman who lives a few doors away, in thrall to a broken-down old gangster played by Danny Trejo.
All that slow exposition is weighed down by Johnson's labored dialogue. Ranchero is at its best when Kaponas abandons the words on the page in favor of a more visual approach. The film's two central montages, of Jesse walking around town taking portraits of locals in an attempt to turn his film hobby into a serious artistic pursuit, and a later sequence intercutting a simple haircut for Jesse with a day of soul-crushing despair for Tom, do more to reveal character than pages and pages of stilted conversation.
Jesse's desire to save Lil' Bit from her situation provides the film with the direction and the stakes it's been lacking, but it still feels like a manufactured conflict. The lives onscreen are collapsing in a slow, controlled demolition, buckling under the pressures of an urban landscape dominated by gang violence, drugs and prostitution. By the time Danny Trejo makes his one on-screen appearance in the climactic scene, he has been tasked with embodying every one of these evils. His craggy features even reflect the cracked and battered streets that the characters have been walking throughout the movie.
If Trejo's sneering visage is L.A. personified, it's no wonder everyone in Ranchero spends most of their time wishing they were somewhere else. But like Trejo's character, Kaponas' vision of the city feels oversimplified and one-dimensional. The film places a great deal of stock in the role of geography in its characters' happiness, but doesn't really address the fact that their problems don't necessarily stay in the rear-view mirror once they hit the road for that change of scenery.