2020, R, 98 min. Directed by John Hyams. Starring Jules Willcox, Marc Menchaca, Anthony Heald.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 18, 2020
It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you, and the modern expectation, especially for women, is that trusting random strangers is a great way to get yourself killed. Jessica (Willcox) is already pulled back into her shell, running away from her old home after one trauma too many has pushed her away from every relationship. She sets off on a road trip to somewhere and nowhere, but every place she stops she seems to run into the same driver (Menchaca). He seems harmless enough, but after a certain point their meetings seem less like coincidence and more like stalking.
Hyams (who directed two of the most bonkers installments of the Universal Soldier franchise) pushes for a straight-ahead, old-school, slasher-versus-final-girl dynamic from moment one, and that's where Alone's real trick lies. Serial killers have to be able to navigate everyday society, to be able to convince their intended victims that they're not some malevolent boogeyman. Hyams even makes a nod to a well-known real-life case in the unnamed Man's arsenal of deception: It's about playing with Jessica's head before he gets into the physical torture. Or maybe it's her paranoia and isolation, painting some unfortunate passerby as the devil.
Adapted by Matthia Olsson from his chilly 2011 Swedish thriller Försvunnen (Gone), Alone keeps clear of the overt sexualization that so often plagues the genre. Instead, the cat-and-mouse game is more subtle in its depiction of gender and power. When Juliette and the Man, mid-pursuit, meet a passing stranger, their response says volumes about how women are not believed while also being a nod to how real-life abductees have been handed back to their smooth-talking captors. That'll you'll not be sure if Jessica will make it to the end – or even past her first encounter – shows how effectively Hyams evokes real fears.
Alone isn't solely cerebral: There are the odd moments of blood, most especially as Juliette flees across the woodlands. The Oregon wilderness is captured with ingenious subtlety and muddy ingenuity by Hyam's Z Nation cinematographer Federico Verardi, who finds new depth and breadth to the muddy color wheel that has become common in modern survival horror. The sense of true wilderness is amplified by sound mixers Morgan Hobart and Brian Mazzola, who deploy bug rattles and rain splatters like weapons, building in the diegetic sound of nature so that the odd moments of silence are truly oppressive and menacing.
But underpinning it all is the sinister two-hander between Willcox (a portrait of stress and emotional collapse before she's under threat), and a restrained but gonzo performance from Menchaca. It's an unexpected horror turn, oddly reminiscent of when Kevin Sorbo briefly turned his back on faith films to play a psycho sex killer in Julia X. His malicious control, the way he shifts from a damaged bird of a man to a hulking beast, helps put Alone away from the pack of middling modern slashers.
Alone is in theaters now, and available as a virtual cinema release.