John Hyams’s Alone refutes the frenetic clichés of modern American thrillers, which were recently on grotesque display in Derrick Borte’s similarly themed Unhinged. Borte seemed to believe that noise inherently generates suspense, pummeling the audience with nondescript carnage, while Hyams fosters an elegant, often unsettlingly quiet atmosphere. Alone sometimes suggests what might happen if someone were to merge the principles of slow cinema with a 1970s drive-in-style thriller like Duel or Vanishing Point. As in slow cinema, the impact of even small changes and gestures is viscerally felt in Alone, as Hyams expertly drums up a sense of anticipation and dread via stately pacing.
There’s little dialogue in Alone’s opening passages, which visually communicate the sadness and fear that Jessica (Jules Willcox) feels as she packs her belongings into the trailer attached to her car. In one evocative moment, she zones out at a traffic light and Hyams lingers on her face, stretching out time to reflect her fugue state. Throughout the film, the director is devoted to rendering Jessica’s state of mind in direct physical terms with little exposition. The mountainous, wooded realms that Jessica soon drives into appear capable of swallowing her up, as Hyams frames Jessica’s car in gliding shots—somewhat reminiscent of the opening images of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—that contrast the unruly vastness of the land with her unmistakably suburban, impractical-in-the-wild vehicle.
Approaching a black Jeep Grand Cherokee that’s winding slowly down a valley, Jessica attempts to pass on a dangerous curve only to have the jeep speed up. Jessica eventually passes the driver, who eventually turns off onto another road. But the jeep keeps popping up—a familiar suspense trope that Hyams and cinematographer Federico Verardi elevate with muscular framing as well as the shrewd selection of the vehicle itself. A Jeep Grand Cherokee isn’t the gargantuan tractor trailer of Duel or the overbearing, seemingly monstrous truck in Unhinged, but an everyday car used for everyday purposes. Such chillingly banal textures give Alone a ring of plausibility and randomness while simply rendering the interloper harder to find on the road. Jessica spots many dark-colored SUVs, causing her to do double takes.
Jessica’s stalker unexpectedly reveals himself early on in the film, approaching her with trepidation, apologizing for the run-in on the mountain. This unnamed man is played by Marc Menchaca, who exuded a frighteningly stolid presence in the HBO miniseries The Outsider earlier this year, and who informs this character with a similar physicality. Despite the man’s nerdy deference, it’s clear that he can handle himself. After a prolonged game of cat and mouse, he attacks Jessica, disabling and breaking into her car seat and knocking her unconscious by injecting something into her neck with a phallic object. This sequence offers a disconcertingly casual act of violation, framed in a silhouette from the back of the car so that we can’t quite make out what this clearly well-practiced predator is doing. After he imprisons Jessica in the basement of a remote cabin, the man violates her again in a similar manner, rubbing her nose in a past heartbreak, cooing into her ear like a lover.
Hyams never whips up phony hysteria, instead counterpointing the lurid, derivative plot with detailed staging. Alone is divided into chapters—with existentially curt titles such as “The River” and “The Clearing”—and each section, especially those concerning Jessica’s imprisonment and retribution, almost seem to be set in units of real time. Viewers are allowed to feel the drudgery of Jessica’s captivity in the basement as she surveys the bare chamber for methods of escape. In an extraordinary scene, Hyams emphasizes a closet’s constriction while Jessica hides and learns a sinister truth. Where a conventional director might have attempted to drum up tension across these sequences with fevered cutting and a bombastic score, Hyams favors long takes that honor the rhythms of his actors and the contours of space, informing the film’s nightmare scenario with a strong tactile quality.
Hyams’s craftsmanship holds our attention, but it lacks for that sense of obsessiveness that permeates classic thrillers. Verardi’s compositions are lucid and frightening, yet they want for expressiveness, and this neutrality is inadvertently underscored by the film’s references to Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, in which woods primordially embodied the protagonists’ psyches. Alone has little subtext apart from the double meaning of its title, which refers to the aloneness that renders Jessica vulnerable to a horror that she must also navigate solo. But to be fair, this anonymity appears to be intentional and is resonant on its own terms. Life isn’t conveniently subtextual after all. Shit happens, and lean, exciting genre films like this one aren’t to be taken for granted.