John Hyams’ gripping survival thriller “Alone” blends unrelenting tension with well-written characters, strong realism, and stunning cinematography.
A woman trying to outrun the pain of her past instead finds herself running for her life when a family man with a grim hobby sets his sights on her and refuses to leave her alone.
Jessica (Jules Willcox) is struggling to load up a U-Haul trailer by herself. As she hits the road, she gets lost in introspective thought. Wilcox expertly conveys a sense of longing and sadness without a word of dialogue, and we sense this move is Jessica’s attempt to leave her past behind. However, what exactly it is she’s anxious to leave in the rearview mirror, we aren’t yet sure of.
As she drives, we’re treated to a breathtaking swath of natural scenery — over shining sea, hill, and forest. Shot with such a sure hand and eye for glorious detail, I would not have objected much to a full hour and forty minutes of just those awe-inspiring opening shots. Fortunately, while Alone wastes very little time moving from hopeful new beginnings to a heart-stopping survival thriller, the majesty of nature — as both protector and adversary — remains a constant backdrop, as reflected by the titles of the film’s acts, such as “The River” and “The Rain”.
The vast landscape reflects an unknown future, full of possibility and potential — but also more than capable of swallowing her whole.
Barely five minutes into the film, Jessica’s peaceful drive is disturbed by an eerie encounter with a man driving a black Jeep Grand Cherokee.
He’s driving way too slowly down a single lane highway. As she attempts to pass, the Jeep speeds up, refusing to let her over as a semi-truck comes barreling down the road in her direction. After a terrifyingly close brush with death, she pulls over to let the Jeep pass and catch her bearings.
As night falls, she stops to get gas and call her father. Brief glimpses into Jessica’s state of mind are slowly revealed; the fact that she left town without telling her parents and has a strained relationship with her mother, who she is not eager to speak with. While trying to ease her father’s concerns, the man in the Jeep shows up again, conspicuously slowing down as he pulls up beside Jessica before speeding on down the road.
Later that night in her motel room, we get hints that Jessica is recovering from the end of a serious relationship, and it’s this loss that has her seeking a fresh start. Eventually, it’s revealed she’s been recently widowed following her husband’s suicide. Suddenly, we understand the mixture of pain and guilt enveloping Jessica, leaving her alone both by circumstance and choice as she withdraws from the people who love her.
The next morning in the motel parking lot, that damn Jeep shows up. Again. This time, the driver (Marc Menchaca) gets out of the car, knocks on Jessica’s window, and introduces himself. The man, who never gives his name, tries to apologize for scaring her the day before. She begrudgingly accepts his flimsy excuse, but his presence makes her visibly uncomfortable.
Menchaca is magnificent at appearing both awkwardly nerdy and unassuming and somehow still quietly menacing.
Jessica’s instincts begin whispering that something’s not right, despite the man’s attempt to make peace. Those instincts escalate to a deafening roar when she again encounters the Jeep broken down in the middle of the road, and the man urges her to get out of her car to help him.
Far too often, we’re used to seeing victims in horror movies make terrible decisions that end up putting their lives in grave peril. Jessica, however, does everything right, and it’s enormously refreshing.
While the man — whose arm rests in a sling, conjuring up images of Ted Bundy — tries to prey on her kindness, she puts her safety first, driving away when he refuses her offer to call for help. Ultimately, it’s not her bad decisions but rather the cruel hand of fate that results in Jessica’s imprisonment in the man’s basement.
Menchaca plays the man with chilling depravity, someone who clearly gets off on terrorizing and emotionally manipulating scared, vulnerable women. However, while this woman may be alone and understandably afraid, she’s far from helpless. Rather than giving into panic, she keeps her cool and uses her head to escape the basement, eventually fleeing into the woods. The rest of the film becomes a taut and thrilling fight for survival as Jessica is ruthlessly hunted through the unforgiving wilderness.
Once the action starts in Alone, it never lets up.
Director John Hyams has crafted a nail-biting tale of nonstop terror, infused at every turn with a palpable sense of dread and horrible anticipation. Stellar sound design helps ramp up the tension, with rhythmic pulsation that echo Jessica’s — and the audience’s own — accelerated heartbeat. When Jessica tries to escape her captor by diving into river rapids, the sound of the water crashing over her feels utterly immersive.
Hyams gives us the gift of a protagonist who’s not a fragile, weak victim but rather a whip smart, resilient fighter who never lets fear overtake her. We also get a truly terrifying antagonist who, like the most notorious real-life serial killers, is frighteningly adept at passing for perfectly “normal” when he needs to.
When Jessica stumbles upon a kind, older man named Robert (the always excellent Anthony Heald) hunting in the woods, he tries his best to help her. But at no point does she feel truly safe, nor do we as the audience ever feel like she’s more than a few minutes from a madman’s clutches.
It all culminates in a powerful finale that feels deeply satisfying without trying too hard to tie everything up with a nice, neat bow.