No One Lives (2012)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“Who am I?”

So asks the man (a scene-stealing Luke Evans) in No One Lives who is generically designated ‘Driver’ in the closing credits (he is first seen in the film driving a car), but whose actual name we never learn – although we do learn that it is “unusual”.

Driver is on the road, relocating with his girlfriend Betty (Laura Ramsey), all his worldly possessions stowed in his car and horse trailer. Stopping overnight in a small town, they have a run-in with an extended family of thieves who abduct them at the instigation of murderous “psychopath” Flynn (Derek Magyar). As oblivious as we are to just who ‘Driver’ is, this redneck clan of common criminals is about to see the tables turned by a decidedly uncommon one who knows a lot more than they do about kidnapping, torture and death.

No One Lives begins with a hackneyed horror routine: a young woman (Adelaide Clemens, in fact the cast’s weakest link) flees terrified from an unseen threat in the woods. Yet when a rope trap pulls her by her leg into the air, she has the wits to scratch an upside-down message (“Emma alive”) into a tree trunk. This inverted image, much like the later scene in which a character is held upside-down over a meat grinder, emblematises the topsy-turvy spirit of a film that keeps upsetting the relationship between predator and victim, and repeatedly foregrounds its clichés only to turn them – and our expectations – on their head. A corpse appears to come back to life, suggesting a zombie film like director Ryuhei Kitamura’s breakout hit Versus (2000), only for a rather different kind of monster to emerge. A gang of aggressive rednecks is reduced to panic by a lone outsider. A traumatised woman prefers captivity to what might lie waiting just beyond.

Even the title is misleading – although to work out the criteria for survival here is like trying to understand what makes people fall in love. Indeed, No One Lives is a Stockholm syndrome romance whose bizarre erotic progress plays out in the idioms of bloody bondage and extreme interdependence. This certainly makes the film a psychothriller with a difference – and being ‘different’ is a recurrent theme, given that the word is used to describe both Driver and Emma – but it does not necessarily mean that we ever get a coherent account of who these characters are or why they behave as they do. Despite Driver’s propensity for expansive monologuing about himself, some viewers may find themselves agreeing with the confused woman who declares (in a flashback sequence), “There never was a key!” And while the film knowingly deconstructs one set of clichés (“Don’t you find it trite?”), it seems merely to replace them with others, rather than reinventing the Driver’s wheel.

Still, never one to shy from gore or grotesquery, Kitamura’s stylish direction keeps the twists and turns viscerally engaging throughout.

Anton Bitel