This film is literally my worst nightmare come true. Any time I’m driving and someone comes up behind me a little too fast and rides my tail for a while, I worry that they’re going to be so pissed at me for whatever wrong I’ve done them with my driving that they’re going to follow me home. I never assume this is going to happen because that would be paranoid, but a little part of my brain says what if? And in Alone at Fantasia International Film Festival, that’s precisely what happens.
Jon Hyams’ Alone is about Jessica (Jules Willcox), a recently widowed woman who’s on the drive to move to a new home by herself, when she encounters a Man (Marc Menchaca) on the road who puts her in a dangerous driving situation. She arrives at her motel for the night and encounters the Man again, this time apologizing for his poor driving etiquette. Fair enough, a polite thing to do, though he does frighten her a bit. Jessica has a few more increasingly frightening encounters with the Man along her journey, until she is ultimately kidnapped by him. She spends the rest of the film trying to escape him in the desolation of the woods in the Pacific Northwest.
When you’re running for your life, the last thing you need is for there to be nowhere in particular to run towards. That’s what makes Alone so scary. Putting yourself in Jessica’s shoes, where would you go? Who would you run to? You’re lucky if you even see another person (besides your attacker) in the woods at all on any given day. Sure, certain areas of certain woods are popular hiking and camping areas, but what happens when the area you’re in is not one? The fear really sets in as you realize you have nowhere to go and nobody to run towards to ask for help. Eventually, Jessica does come across one hunter but that’s just pure luck and happenstance. There was a far greater chance that she would have to face this monster alone.
Now let’s talk about the trees. There is nothing creepier than the concept of being lost in the vastness that is the wilderness. In the woods, there are no street signs, landmarks, or directions you can follow. You either have to be really good with a compass and a map—which most people nowadays are not unless they were a Boy Scout—or have a photographic memory for certain trees and bushes and rocks. Most trees in any given area are of the same or similar varieties, especially in the woods. It can be extremely disorienting, as shown by the use of music and camerawork to express a sense of unease when focused on the trees.
The trees themselves are almost like their own character within the film. Any time Jessica is on the run, trying to navigate these woods, we cut to a shot of the top of the trees, and they themselves create this deep feeling of unease. Jessica often looks up to the trees when she’s feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the woods and the hopelessness of her journey to escaping the Man. The trees are just as important to the story as the other characters, particularly coupled with the eerie music they’re accompanied by. They set the tone and the mood of the film as we go along. The closer we are to the end, the more the trees appear to be closing in on us. But, of course, the other characters are so much more important.
You know a horror movie is good at crafting characters when you’re screaming at your laptop screen rooting for the main character the whole time. Jessica is such a strong lead that you can’t help but both pity her for her tragic past and believe in her for her hopeful future. She’s a warrior through and through. Her initial fear and jumpiness make you underestimate her. But her tenacity and will to survive persevere despite these fears. It’s this type of character development over only 98 minutes that makes her such a standout. And it doesn’t hurt that the portrayal of her by Jules Willcox is such a memorable performance.
One thing I will say is they could’ve come up with a better name. Looking at IMDB, there are countless entries for the title Alone in 2020 alone (no pun intended). I would’ve personally picked something to do with trees because that’s such a strong motif in the film. I know this is a very nitpicky criticism, but with a film this good, you have to be nitpicky. The film deserves more uniqueness than just Alone. While, yes, she was caught traveling alone and that’s why he decided to stalk and kidnap her and she had to go it alone for most of the film, there’s just so much more to the film than that that’s far more distinctive.
It’s a rather simple movie, but it does such a great job of building tension that it doesn’t feel like it is. Each minute you spend with Jessica and the Man makes you nervous for the next turn. If you’re looking for an extended panic attack of a film, this is your guy. It’s just a really solid, basic kidnapping story, and that’s all it needs to be.
Alone is available in theaters and on demand September 18th.