Alone (2020) at Fantasia
In Alone, Jessica (Jules Willcox) is on the run.
This is not just because of the man (Marc Menchaca) who first plays road games with her, and who then follows her creepily from stop to stop making repeated ‘friendly’ attempts at contact despite Jessica’s clear indications that his presence is not welcome, and who finally declares his predatory intent, leading to terrifying cat and mouse in the woods. For before Jessica even meets this man, she is already on the move – leaving her home behind her, and taking everything with her that she can in a hired U-haul trailer.
Jessica is headed north by herself, and while her parents know that she is going, she has left a full day early without telling them, so as to avoid their send-off. Jessica is in emotional flight – from the tragedy that abruptly ended her happy marriage six months ago, and from the guilt and trauma that have dogged her ever since. “Have you called the therapist yet?”, her mother will have to ask on the phone while Jessica is already in transit. Jessica just wants to leave all that in her trail, and to start afresh. The problem for Jessica is that running is not enough. Wherever Jessica goes, her unresolved issues follow close behind. In a sense, her stalker is merely their embodiment.
Written by Mattias Olsson (Gone, 2011), Alone is a fairly straightforward survivalist thriller whose narrative architecture is built from numerous well-worn genre elements: after some escalating stalk and slash, a vulnerable woman finds herself trapped in a basement, and then becomes the most dangerous game, until the hunted becomes the hunter, ultimately confronting head-on the fears that she has been trying to escape. All this has been done many times previously, and savvy viewers will feel that they are firmly in terra cognita.
Yet several things make Alone stand apart. The first is that it is directed by John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, 2012), who knows how to squeeze every last bit of tension out of a familiar formula. Jessica’s ordeal on the road, in the cellar and finally in the woods is shot beautifully from all angles, and tautly edited, so that no matter how well-travelled the route on which we are being taken, we are still made to feel every bump and swerve, every twist and turn along the way. This is a very well crafted film.
The second thing that distinguishes Alone is the presentation of the stalker. Cinema is full of hoodied villains or masked creeps who say little, breathe heavily and may as well, in all their machine-like efficiency, be mythic monsters rather than humans. Yet here the man – who is eventually named – is none of that. He likes to talk, he is, for all his ruthless and cunning, also bumbling and careless, and with his moustache, glasses and all-round homeliness, he is the spitting image of The Simpsons‘ Ned Flanders. This characterisation is important both because it reflects a reality (killers often are the man next door), and because, as a variation on a cinematic standard, it feels fresh. The murderer here is the kind of dull, chatty, slightly annoying family man perhaps best epitomised by Raymond in George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (Spoorloos, 1988) – and indeed, the killer in Alone steals a trick from Raymond, donning a fake sling on his arm to appear harmless.
The third thing that makes Alone so engaging is that while it focuses on the mechanics of the hunt, it always keeps its psychological subtext running in parallel – indeed, the killer repeatedly taunts Jessica with her past, expressly tying it to what is happening in the present. So by the time the film has reached its final, feral showdown in what a subtitle tells us is ‘ the clearing’ (a term that doubles its duty in referring to an inner catharsis as much as a geographical space), we know that we are witnessing not just a climactic battle between murderous assailant and final girl, but also a particularly intense form of primal therapy. Reborn as a creature of primeval mud and blood, Jessica is done running.
Strap: John Hyams’ survival thriller pits an emotionally vulnerable woman against a stalker in the primal wilderness.
© Anton Bitel