Director: John Hyams
Notable Cast: Jules Willcox, Marc Menchaca, Anthony Heald
As a big fan of John Hyams, particularly after the incredibly underrated Universal Soldier films he crafted to reinvent the franchise as dark, philosophical, ultra-violent works of existential debates, the fact that he would tackle a survival thriller-horror had me all atwitter. With Alone, he strips down the genre to its bare minimum and then perfects it, hammering home the core emotional state of the situation rather than trying to slyly inject an asinine angle on it. Only in the hands of a talented cast with a viscerally subtle director could Alone work as well as it does, but Hyams brings together in an impactful manner that makes it one of the best films of the year.
As with so many subgenres in the world of horror, the kidnapping and survival film are ones that tend to be over-done for indie horror thanks to their ability to work well in limited budgets. Often times it’s a genre that I tend to overlook because of the number of films that exist there and the lacking dedication to truly executing the elements that make it work. Alone, though, damn. Hyams and crew are not holding back.
The plotting is simple. To say that the script and direction are stripped down might understate how the film plays with its narrative. Jessica, played with a movie carrying, intimate, and incredibly layered performance by Willcox, is on her way to move across the US when she is stalked by a man (Menchaca) in a beat-up SUV. A kidnapping occurs and then it becomes a survivalist escape film from there. That’s it. That’s the whole film. It has an incredibly intimate cast stripped down to the essentials in plot with a narrative that is tightly woven into everything. Yet, it’s a white-knuckle cat and mouse chase film. While the kidnapping would seemingly shift the film into a torture film, either mentally or physically, it’s only a slight detour from the chase approach to its tone and narrative structure to shift the setting and establish a new set of obstacles. The simplicity is brilliant.
With this as an established foundation, Hyams is able to fine-tune the formula with a sense of dread that comes from his subtle use of a ‘heightened’ naturalism. The manner that the film is shot, particularly with its use of natural light and the smartly crafted use of spacing to indicate a threatening aura makes for an effective style that maximizes the settings and characterizations. The forest becomes its own character as the movie progresses. Too much space? Too little? Both are valid options that feel suffocating for Jessica and the audience. Hyams might have stripped the film down, but the manner that he does it and the minimal style choices he makes fit together incredibly well.
Alone might not have a memorable title, but the execution of the film is the absolute opposite. With a strong sense of direction, character building, and use of its setting, Alone delivers a pure thrill ride of a classic cat and mouse film. The performances are top-notch, the manner that the narrative unwinds and develops its heroine is effective, and how the film ultimately comes to a vicious and violent end makes it one of the best of the year. Hyams remains one of the most impressive and underrated directors in genre cinema right now and Alone is just another bullet in that belt.