Essays · Movies

Sundance 2018: Relishing the Somber Humanism of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’

Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning are an oddly sweet pair in Reed Morano’s melancholy tale about facing down the end of humanity.
I Think We're Alone Now Still
By  · Published on January 25th, 2018

Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning are an oddly sweet pair in Reed Morano’s melancholy tale about facing down the end of humanity.

I’d like to propose a new category for acting awards as we begin this review of Reed Morano‘s intimate, melancholy apocalypse tale I Think We’re Alone Now. If it doesn’t go well, we can blame the (probably illegal) levels of cold medicine flowing through my veins as I write this. I call this new category the “Signature Move Award.” It’s a lifetime achievement sort of thing. It’s not dissimilar from an award you might give to say, Tom Hanks for his persistent likability. There are some actors whose single greatest move is the single greatest version of that particular move. Where Hanks is the most likable person who’s ever graced our silver screen, I believe Peter Dinklage to be a generational talent when it comes to expressing a cocktail of simultaneous confusion, concern, and mild discomfort. It’s his move and no one does it better.

Let’s set the scene, Oscar intro video style: I Think We’re Alone Now opens with a solid 20-minutes of Dinklage alone as Del, a librarian who finds himself as the lone survivor of the apocalypse. In his town along the Hudson River, just outside of New York City, he spends his days cleaning up the bodies of the other 1,600 former residents, all of whom appeared to have died instantly on a random Tuesday afternoon. He was, as we discover quickly, always more comfortable alone. As he meticulously cleans houses and buries the dead, Del is presented as a quiet, pragmatic, and productive man. He doesn’t appear to be dwelling on his status as the last man alive. It doesn’t stop him from fishing or drinking wine or collecting batteries from the homes of the deceased. He seems at peace with his situation, content to ride out the rest of human existence with a good book in hand. Director Reed Morano’s lens keeps him in close focus, allowing us an intimate portrait of Del that fills us with melancholy and serenity. It’s sad that he’s alone, but he’s also doing just fine.

Enter Grace, played by Elle Fanning. She’s a somewhat reckless young woman who shows up just as we’re getting used to spending time with Del. This is where Mr. Dinklage unleashes his signature move. In Del’s face, perfectly framed, masterfully lit, and at just the right distance, Dinklage sells us a universe of emotional turmoil. It’s the confusion of learning that he’s not alone as he’d previously believed, the concern of that loneliness being ended by a young woman who wants to be his friend, and the mild discomfort of realizing that his peaceful existence is a thing of the past. Resist as he may, but Del has a new friend.

All of this makes I Think We’re Alone Now an especially engaging treat. Dinklage’s magnetism in these opening moments pave the way for what becomes a beautifully cathartic meditation on the nature of loneliness.

But then there’s this other thing. Morano and writer Mike Makowsky know that with any great ‘loner in the apocalypse’ story, we need a little mystery. Things can’t be as simple as they appear. Yet, if this entire movie was just about Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning learning to co-exist among the remnants of humanity, it would still be great. But there’s more in the backstory of Grace — a strange scar on the back of her neck, a revelation about a community of survivors, and some eerie implications for how post-humanity humanity is coping. It’s not a spoiler to say that Paul Giamatti and Charlotte Gainsbourg show up and it’s fucking weird. Their presence ignites a mysterious, ominous third act that makes me wish this was all a backdoor pilot for a new TV series that’s a spiritual successor to The Leftovers. As far as I know, that’s not what’s happening here, but my heart sings for the possibilities.

While we may never get that TV show that exists in my headcanon, I Think We’re Alone Now does serve as further proof that Reed Morano is a special talent. Her career as a renowned cinematographer has given way to the rise of a filmmaker who sees beauty in lonely moments, who finds oceans of emotion in over-the-shoulder following shots, and who appreciates the mileage a film can get out of two magnetic actors sharing still moments. It’s an effort that leaves its audience hopeful and intrigued, something our cynical world doesn’t always deliver when dealing with stories about the end of humankind. Because, as we learn from Del’s journey, no matter how many graves we dig, our humanity can survive.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)