The ‘Woman-In-Peril’ sub-genre probably feels like old hat to the overwhelming majority of audiences in this day and age. Whether it’s Olivia de Havilland being terrorised by vicious Jimmy Caan and his band of freaks in Lady In A Cage, the poor girls who unwittingly walk into the traps of Buffalo Bill in The Silence Of The Lambs or Laurie Strode desperately trying to evade unstable Captain Kirk fan Michael Myers in Halloween, the narrative concept of women being physically and emotionally tormented by relentless, weird, horrible bastards has been a mainstay of Hollywood horrors and thrillers from time immemorial. You can only get so much mileage out of such a premise and, unfortunately, many efforts are marred by tired cliche recycling and more than the occasional dollop of misogyny.
I don’t believe there’s anything ‘problematic’ about the trope in and of itself because it does, after all, highlight the reality that plenty of psychologically abnormal nasties get a depraved kick out of targeting women, but when it comes to storytelling you simply cannot use the ‘lone woman in house observed by man with a stabbing fetish’ scenario and expect to get away with showcasing it formulaically. One of the reasons I had such respect for Mike Flanagan’s Hush was its ballsy and unexpected subversion of seemingly hardwired genre conventions, surprising the viewer with seldom-seen detours and infusing both heroine and villain with multi-dimensionality.
Alone, the new effort from director John Hyams, arguably does something new in that it goes completely back to basics. With a minimal script and a cast of three, it deftly and unpretentiously immerses the audience in a thoroughly disturbing nail-biter courtesy of robust characterisation and performances and a lack of well-worn contemporary narrative avenues.
Jessica (Jules Willcox) is a young woman living in Portland, Oregon who has recently been widowed. Desperate to leave the city for a fresh start in the Pacific Northwestern wilderness, she loads up her car with all of her worldly goods and hits the open road, wishing to forgo the previously arranged removal help from her parents and get the hell out of dodge.
As she coasts along increasingly secluded rural roads, Jessica eventually encounters a black SUV with a seemingly feather-footed driver, ambling along at an infuriatingly slow pace. With the strain of recent tragedy unsurprisingly weighing on her mind, Jessica’s patience wears thin and she attempts to overtake this most annoying of vehicles, only for the driver to suddenly perk up and block her every attempt to do so before pulling an insane Duel-esque manoeuvre and forcing her onto the path of an oncoming truck, Jessica thoroughly shaken after narrowly avoiding the collision and sharply pulling over to catch her breath.
Crashing at a motel for the night, she is preparing to make haste the following morning when an unpleasantly leering, bespectacled stranger, moustachioed to the nines, knocks on the window of her station wagon and identifies himself as the driver of the SUV. He apologises for frightening her and explains that he was distracted by his phone, but something feels extraordinarily off. This guy never breaks his gaze, asks Jessica several irrelevant personal questions and informs her that he’ll ‘see her around’, the usually banal and friendly parting phrase utterly loaded with creep and cringe.
Jessica seems to momentarily consider the man’s sincerity and the possibility that he’s merely awkward when it comes to interpersonal communication. But then he keeps showing up on the road. Firstly his car breaks down and he needs a lift, increasingly perturbing our heroine with his pushy manner. After she nopes the f**k out of there, he later pulls up in the parking lot where she calls her parents from a payphone, briskly walking towards her stony-faced before she high-tails it yet again, only for him to catch up to her along a pitch-black stretch of country road and brutally attack her. Awaking in a dingy bunker, the horrifying realisation dawns on Jessica that she is the latest victim of a thoroughly warped and murderous kidnapper and, as is always the case, will have to rely on all of her guile and guts if she wants to live to see another day.
This is the set-up, in all of its glory. One could hardly be blamed for reading that and expecting another boring and forgettable chase thriller, but Alone is rendered worthwhile by the fact that it’s a very muscular and concise genre exercise. The mountain-land surrounding Portland is used to excellently disquieting effect by cinematographer Federico Verardi, the bird’s eye shots that capture its chilly and isolating beauty carrying an ominous vibe, particularly when night falls and Jessica desperately scrambles from one indistinguishable backwoods highway to the next.
Willcox is to be commended for her strong and palpable depiction of a resourceful woman in trouble. Given no backstory save for the aforementioned loss of her husband, Jessica nevertheless communicates a well-rounded pathos, her mounting discomfort and fear as authentic as the heartbreak that she carries around and going a long way to create a character that it’s pretty easy to give a damn about. The evil ‘Man’, played brilliantly by Marc Menchaca, is a restrained and self-satisfied antagonist, subjecting Jessica to heinously spiteful psychological bullying and effortlessly transforming his demeanour when it’s astute to do so. This is no torture porn villain (the film goes down the route of a survival thriller that is largely suspenseful and sporadically violent), Menchaca instead having to flex his acting muscles and give us a bad guy predicated on emotional sadism and crazymaking, which he does to singular effect.
Aside from Willcox and Menchaca, the only other performer to turn up in the flesh is the wonderful Anthony Heald as benevolent hunter Robert. Best known for his role as the narcissistic creep Dr Chilton in The Silence Of The Lambs, Heald subverts his territorial knack for portraying slimeballs in a solid turn as a Good Samaritan who happens upon the injured and terrified Jessica as she struggles to evade her abductor, offering her food and a drive to the police station. Unfortunately, even he may not be impervious to the man’s vile calculations.
With a keen visual sense, verisimilar performances and a disturbingly intelligent villain, Alone isn’t likely to make anybody’s best-of list but it deserves praise for audience engagement and, to put it bluntly, not pissing about. There are no dumb subplots or drawn-out torture sequences, no jarring deus ex machinas or jump scares. It’s a throwback psychological thriller with a denouement that is predictable but very satisfying, and there’s an exhaustive list of ways that you could more poorly spend 100 minutes. I’d tune into this one.