Desolate (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

“Have you ever wondered if it would be better if all this sort of ended? Boom!”

This is Chad (Jez Bonham), on his first, disastrous date since his long-term girlfriend Annie (Teagan Vincze) walked out on him. With Annie’s departure, Chad’s whole world has come to an end, leading him on an alcohol-fuelled downward spiral of paranoid jealousy, desperate self-isolation and apocalyptic fantasy – indeed, the dreamy opening sequence of Desolate shows Chad sitting on a folding chair in the street to watch the city burn.

Still, Chad needs to be careful what he wishes for. As Devon (Justin Sproule) tries and broadly fails to reconnect with his one-time best friend, there is a massive explosion in the distance. Chad, it seems, is about to be shaken from his self-absorbed torpor, and to be reconciled with both Annie and Devon, by a real disaster unfolding all around him – unless of course this is just another drunken projection of his own destructiveness and despair.

Like Right At Your Door (2006), Cloverfield (2008) and especially Skyline (2010), Rob Grant’s Desolate offers partial glimpses of an evolving cataclysmic event from an intimate, ground-up point of view. In fact the kind of plot in which ordinary characters suddenly find themselves beleaguered by overwhelming, unnatural forces has its template in George A. Romero’s pioneering Night of the Living Dead (1968) – but even Romero’s notoriously small budget and crew seem gargantuan when set against Grant’s labour of love. Three years in the making, Desolate was shot on weekends for very little monetary outlay as Grant waited for the post-production on his second feature, Mon Ami (2012), to be completed. Grant was the sole crew member, there was only an outline rather than an actual script, the interiors were filmed in the director’s own apartment, exteriors were shot on the fly taking opportunistic advantage of Winter Olympics chaos in Vancouver, and the sparely used (but crucial) visual effects were added in post-production using software available gratis for a 30-day trial.

The results are much better, and much better looking, than might be imagined, as Grant, helped by a small cast of talented improvisers, shoots everything fast and tight, using his extensive editing experience (on films like The A-Team and Cabin in the Woods) to build from these impressionistic close-ups a suggestive mosaic of delusion, distraction and deep damage. The decision to conjure the film’s otherworldly monsters entirely with sound – and to keep them at the film’s margins – may have been dictated in no inconsiderable part by the constraints of budget, but the primary focus on human drama brings its own salutary effects. For here, widescale (but unseen) alien invasion is reducible to metaphor and psychology, delineating the contours of a dysfunctional relationship wherein love is destructive, outsiders are unwelcome, and three will always be a crowd.

In a world overfull of FX-heavy SF blockbusters, Desolate is a bold minimalist experiment in what it is possible to achieve with little beyond determination and talent. Broadly, it succeeds.

Anton Bitel