True loneliness can be terrifying — not the sense of yearning for other person’s company, but the state of distress, feeling that you’re on your own completely and totally, with no one else able or willing to help you. That sensation is a common one in 2020, as systems of law and order as well as basic human decency have been broken one by one over the course of the last several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. It’s put many of us into survival mode, having to reach inside ourselves for the inner strength — if any — to persevere. Obviously, director John Hyams couldn’t see the future when he shot his latest film last year, making it one of many horror films released in 2020 that eerily echo the anxieties of the present situation. Even seen without the lens of current events, Alone is a harrowing experience that earns its power by being uncomfortably credible.
Like most effective horror films, the setup is lean and mean: Jessica (Jules Willcox), recently widowed, decides to pack up a U-Haul and move house earlier than she’d told her parents she was going to, wanting to avoid them as she drives through the Pacific Northwest. On the road, Jessica encounters a man (Marc Menchaca as “Man”) who at first is a mere annoyance, then turns into an ominous presence as he insinuates himself into her path several times. Her sense of danger piqued, Jessica’s worst fears are confirmed when it turns out the Man deliberately sabotaged her car, causing her to run off the road long enough for him to abduct her and take her to a secluded cabin. From there, Jessica is faced with a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles: the fact that the Man has clearly abducted and murdered victims before, the vastness of the surrounding forest and the challenges to survival it presents, and the notion that even if she were to find potential help (as in the form of a wandering hunter, played by Anthony Heald), would another person even believe her story when the Man is so persuasive? As the title of the film indicates, Jessica must face these problems all by herself.
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Much of Alone has a gritty, austere vibe to it that’s highly reminiscent of European thrillers, and there’s a good reason for that — the film is a remake of a 2011 Swedish movie named Forsvunnen (Gone) directed by Mattias Olsson and Henrik JP Åkesson. This isn’t a case of a remake merely happening to resemble its original version, as Hyams makes a point of translating the original movie wholesale — Olsson is still the only credited screenwriter. The effect this has is making Alone feel upsettingly unfamiliar, not letting it fall into the typical structure or tone of an American thriller despite its setting. At times, the movie does feel a little like a copy/pasted version of the original, evidenced by the replicated costuming and shot compositions. Yet the translation from Sweden to America gives Alone a vibe that’s pleasantly unique — several intertitles denote “chapters” in the movie that give the struggle between Jessica and her captor a more mythic feel, and the overall tone is reminiscent of classics like George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988), with the movie feeling genuinely unsafe in terms of refusing to placate the audience and increase the tension to highly uncomfortable levels.
That tension is one of the highlights as well as pitfalls of Alone, as it might just be too high. Hyams and cinematographer Federico Verardi shoot the movie in an attractively aggressive style, with shots that linger in long dolly moves, rack focus back and forth, and capture extreme close-ups of Willcox and Menchaca’s faces as they look directly into the lens. No scene moves too quickly, which lends a sense of veracity to the film as Jessica tries to free herself and then survive at a pace that never seems too convenient or contrived. This leaves a good deal of Alone feeling very uncomfortable, with Hyams’ direction and Olsson’s script not allowing their heroine any easy or cathartic victories for a long, long time. The sound design by Samuel Nacach and score by Nima Fakhrara work hand-in-hand to build the film’s tension to near-breaking point, twisting the proverbial knife constantly. Alone isn’t a movie made for fans of jump scares and cheap thrills, but instead a gritty and often bleak story about a woman attempting to survive the horrors and hardships continually thrown her way. Both lead actors rise to the level of the material — Menchaca is frustratingly practical and cool under pressure while being disgustingly arrogant, and Willcox is believably determined while remaining vulnerable, letting Jessica take a lengthy journey rather than rushing it.
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Alone isn’t subtle with its subtext, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. In addition to being a stripped-down tale of survival, it’s also the story of Jessica’s struggle with remaining alive full stop. It’s revealed that her late husband committed suicide, and the pallor over the film keeps that tragedy and despair at the forefront. As such, Alone isn’t just a chronicle of Jessica’s survival but an argument for just about any human being continuing the hardship of living. It’s why Hyams chose to remake the 2011 movie so closely, not for reasons of translating a foreign film for Western audiences but to point out the continuing resonance of its subject matter, like an artist covering a song without putting too many new frills on it. Alone makes a point of just how patriarchal, misogynistic, brutal, insidious, crafty and unfair the world can be, and how choosing to survive each day feels impossibly hard at times. In 2020 or any other year, life is uncomfortably difficult, and the truth is, when it comes down to it, the only people we can really rely on is ourselves. That may not be ideal, but, like it is for Jessica, it may be enough.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.