Fantasia International Film Festival runs August 20th through September 2nd as a completely online event. We’re used to attending in person in beautiful Montreal, Canada, but we’re excited to cover this fantastic festival virtually too. Our coverage of this year’s Fantasia Festival continues with our review of a tale of survival called Alone.
The woods are scary, deep, and dark, as they say, and if you’re unfamiliar with the surroundings they can be a struggle to survive within. The challenge only intensifies when a threat of some kind is hot on your trail intent on turning you into fertilizer for the local flora, and it’s the reason why genre films have always relied on dense forests as settings for terrible things. Alone is no different as it drops a woman and a man in a wooded locale and runs with it — sometimes quite literally — delivering a simple but highly effective thriller.
Jessica (Jules Willcox) is leaving the city behind, but it’s not urban living she’s saying goodbye to — it’s her memories and grief over the death of her husband. She packs her U-Haul trailer and hits the road for the long drive ahead, but somewhere along a remote stretch of the highway she encounters a driver with an attitude problem. The man (Marc Menchaca) finds her in a parking lot later and apologizes, and then she sees him again. It’s a lonely road, but their paths cross entirely too often, and she suspects he’s up to something.
Alone operates from a simple, no-frills premise, and some bumps in the road aside it delivers with a compelling and suspenseful tale of survival. Director John Hyams pares down the kind of action he captured with the likes of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) and Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and instead goes a far more scrappy route. He takes full advantage of the landscape pairing its natural beauty with the terror of human intrusion, and his protagonist is allowed to be far from an action hero. There are no cool traps or sudden bursts of forest knowledge here — she struggles and makes do, and Hyams captures the scrapes and thrills that follow.
The film’s opening thirty minutes are wildly successful at stretching out the tension while also nailing the fear that women experience far too often. Should you engage with a male driver causing trouble? Do you let your guard down to accept his apology graciously? Is it wrong to say no to someone in supposed distress if your gut tells you something is wrong? The film’s first half hour runs Jessica through the emotional ringer having to navigate her way around a stranger who could be a potential threat — or might just be an innocent man in need of help.
Things become more of a mixed bag once the man actually succeeds in abducting her. The film moves at quite a clip leaving no room for sexual assault (thankfully) and instead moving the action into the woods fairly quickly. Some questionable decisions are made by our protagonist, but none are so egregious as to check out from her efforts. The script from Mattias Olsson — a remake of his own Swedish thriller, 2011’s Gone — strips away the fat and keeps the lean of the adventure. We’re left with vague sketches of the two characters, and while it’s enough to draw viewers in its leanness leaves emotions off the table.
You can’t help but root for the young widow, but her ongoing grief is never used to truly inform her character’s journey, growth, or transformation. As it stands, her loss is something of a throwaway detail as the narrative doesn’t make it work as expected. Neither her grief nor her love for her husband seems to be fueling her fight to survive, and while neither have to it makes her status as a recent widow fairly pointless in the scheme of things. Instead, she’s fighting to survive based solely on her recognizably human desire to do so.
Both Willcox and Menchaca do great work on either end of the moral divide. Willcox ensures her determination is just as evident on her face as her fear and sadness, and watching her spunky resistance grow across the film is a cheer-worthy shift. Menchaca, meanwhile, balances a banal plainness with an unnerving creepiness to create a character we don’t trust from frame one — but who still surprises when he proves that mistrust to have been wise.
Alone is a bare-bones thriller that ticks the most basic boxes of the subgenre. It’s solid and satisfying in the moment, but you won’t be alone in forgetting about it over time.