By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jules Willcox, Marc Menchaca and Anthony Heald
Directed by John Hyams
Written by Mattias Olsson
ALONE is one of the many strong features to come out of this past summer’s Fantasia International Film Festival, and is one case where it’s a particular shame that the fest was forced on-line, since it contains a few moments that would kill with a packed audience. Nevertheless, the movie is a good, tense watch at home (it’s on VOD as well as select theaters today), spinning terrific suspense out of a familiar storyline via solid craftsmanship and two strong lead performances.
Jules Willcox makes the most of her central role as Jessica, who packs her possessions into a little U-Haul trailer and heads out of Portland into more remote parts of Oregon in the opening scenes. She’s escaping an initially undisclosed past trauma, and ducking her parents–particularly her mother, whose calls she won’t even answer. While driving through dense forests, she receives even more unwanted attention from the driver of a Jeep Grand Cherokee with whom she first gets into a game of vehicular chicken. When this guy (Marc Menchaca) first catches up to her, he seems apologetic if a little too insinuating, and then he keeps turning up wherever she goes, confirming his menace with a meticulously shot and edited sequence at a nighttime rest stop.
The first act of ALONE feels like a subtler variation on the recent Russell Crowe road-rager UNHINGED, and even similarly bills its villain simply as “Man” in the credits (though we do eventually find out his real name). Rather than spiral into major automotive mayhem, director John Hyams and screenwriter Mattias Olsson keep things lean and simple yet psychologically intense. The Man captures Jessica with a calculation and precision suggesting he’s done this before, and then he confirms it in a creepy, uncomfortable scene after he’s imprisoned her in his remote cabin. Fortunately, ALONE doesn’t play Jessica as a helpless victim for long, and the bulk of the movie is concerned with her attempts to escape and possibly put down her tormentor.
Olsson adapted ALONE’s script from FÖRSVUNNEN (GONE), a 2011 Swedish thriller he wrote and also directed with Henrik JP Akesson, who came aboard as a producer on this one. (Odd trivia note: another of the producing team was Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson!) I haven’t seen FÖRSVUNNEN, but nothing about ALONE seems amped up for the American market, and Hyams, who impressed with the bone-crunching actioner UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, keeps things leaner and very mean here. There’s little overly surprising about the way ALONE’s narrative develops, yet the filmmakers make simplicity a virtue in telling their elemental story, keeping everything on the right side of realistic; this gets points for being one of the few horror films to respect the distance between lightning flashing and thunder crashing. (The only unnecessary flourish: chapter titles like “THE ROAD,” “THE RIVER,” “THE RAIN,” etc.–a trend that was pronounced at Fantasia this year, also turning up in THE DARK AND THE WICKED and COME TRUE.)
They also know how to keep an audience guessing through both filmmaking tricks and casting; when Jessica comes across someone who might help her, the very fact that he’s played by Anthony Heald, the memorably sleazy Dr. Chilton in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, has us wondering if he can be trusted. In very large part, though, it’s just Willcox and Menchaca on screen, and her development from desperation to determination is compellingly played, while he, with his wire-rimmed glasses and bushy mustache, is a very effectively banal villain who is nonetheless skilled at worming his way into his victim’s psyche. The lush Oregon locations in which they play out their cat-and-mouse game are foreboding and threatening as photographed by Federico Verardi, and the team found an especially evocative setting in which to shoot their exceedingly well-turned-out climactic setpiece. It provides a perfect culmination of the conflict and tension that has built throughout this gripping cinematic road trip.