"I'll just get my gear."

Alone

By now most people around here are familiar with John Hyams, director of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009) and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012). For a decade now we’ve scratched our heads wondering how those two genuinely visionary masterpieces of contemporary action didn’t bring Hyams to the attention of Hollywood gatekeepers who could’ve certainly used his skills making mid-budget action movies or thrillers, to say nothing of their big video game adaptations and terminators and what not. But without their dumb asses he’s managed to make a Cung Le vehicle I really like called DRAGON EYES (2012) and the 2018 comedy ALL SQUARE (which I just discovered is on Hulu), and the rest of the time has found plenty of work in television.

He put some of his sensibilities into the SyFy zombie series Z Nation, including an episode that’s mostly an extended chase scene and battle, and moreso in the more serious Netflix prequel series Black Summer. If you’ve checked out that show (and I recommend you do), you won’t be surprised that he can make a clean, elegant, deeply scary thriller like ALONE, which was released to digital platforms Friday after being well received at the virtual Fantasia Film Festival. It’s his simplest and least weird movie, all the better to show off his finely tuned suspense set pieces, enhanced by strong acting and a pervasively ominous atmosphere. And it’s very involving, making us feel like we’re there, whether “there” is in a parking lot at night watching truckers pull up to use a restroom, or high up in the trees listening to their brittle fibers creak as they bend in the breeze.

The story can be boiled down to this: Jessica (Jules Willcox, “Young Drunk Woman,” UNDER THE SILVER LAKE) is moving from Portland to somewhere north, on the road she gets targeted by a psychopath, and she fights to get away from him. All the details and moments that make it matter are solidly built inside that exoskeleton.

Before the trouble starts we know from her phone conversations that she’s been through some trauma. Her backstory is never over-explained – in fact I initially thought she was leaving an abusive husband, when in fact she has been recently widowed. Nevertheless, she has the correct instinct not to trust the strange man (Marc Menchaca, Ozark, The Outsider) who approaches her in a parking lot to apologize for almost causing an accident earlier. He reminds me of Jason Sudeikis crossed with Gary Cole, so he’s not the cliche image of a psycho stalker. He has a very authentic “well-meaning doofus too oblivious to understand that his gestures are making this woman uncomfortable” vibe, but of course we fear this is calculated.

My advice is to stop reading this and come back after you’ve watched the movie. But if you’re sticking around, I have no choice but to reveal that it quickly shifts from JOY RIDE/DUEL/ROAD GAMES type road thriller to “oh shit, this guy is an experienced lunatic because he has me locked up in a dungeon in his remote cabin.” So she’s gonna have to fight or sneak or trick her way out and battle him and/or the elements to survive. And this is John Hyams so it’s gonna be an exhilarating ordeal that leaves both of them covered in sweat, mud, and blood.

It’s very effective on a primal cat-and-mouse level. More than once I realized my heart was pounding or that I was wincing in anticipation of the shit that was about to go down. Hyams gives us more than one torturous stretch of hiding ridiculously close to the kidnapper, watching him and agonizing between the unlikelihood of being able to wait him out and the risk of making a move. I say it like it’s happening to us, not Jessica, because it really puts you into her mind and the stomach churning feeling of having to make that choice of, “Yes, my best option is to reveal myself and try to run even though he’s holding a hunting knife.” I love that in one such scene her potential exit is not across the room, but right next to her, maybe three feet away. It makes the tension even more excruciating than if it was across the room with him in the way.

There are a few other characters, but most of the movie is just between these two actors, so it’s crucial that both are great, and it doesn’t hurt that I don’t recognize either of them from anything. Hyams previously directed Wilcox in an episode of Chicago P.D.; Menchaca was on an episode too, but well before Hyams was involved. That’s one area of the Hyams filmography I’m not familiar with. Does anyone here watch it?

In a story this streamlined, tiny bits can echo louder. For example, in their first awkward face-to-face encounter, when this character who’s only credited as “Man” is pretending to be a nice guy, he asks Jessica her name. She hesitates, clearly doesn’t want to tell him, but gives in. She doesn’t ask his name, not only because she isn’t actually interested in making his acquaintance, but because she’s afraid and wants to get away from him as soon as possible. At the time I wondered if it offended him that she offers standard “good to meet you” niceties without bothering to get his name. But it ends up being a point of power for him. He adds to his torment by calling her by her name, learning personal things about her through deduction and force, and using that information to poke at her. Like an internet stalker. In turn, she learns some things about him through eavesdropping, and it proves to be an effective weapon against him.

Same goes for the title. It’s basic, it’s not very specific – in fact there’s another movie about to be released with the same title, and that one’s about a zombie apocalypse – but it’s perfect. She’s dealing with being left alone by her husband’s death, but also she needs some time to be alone. She’s isolating herself from her family, and then she needs this fucking mustache guy (before she knows he’s a maniac) to leave her alone. There’s an extra vulnerability from the fact that she’s carrying all her belongings in the world in a small U-haul trailer, and they’re left behind in a ditch. Then she’s locked up alone, escaping alone, out in the woods alone, seemingly far away from civilization. But if she gets through this I bet she will still want some alone time.

Occasionally some part of me wonders if in fucked up times like these I would benefit from watching more happy escapism or enrichment and less of the ol’ violence and mayhem I tend to gravitate toward. But ALONE really taps into the moment, whether consciously or not. We identify with this woman who has been dealt too many blows already, who is trying to find herself and a way to start over, who now has to deal with this cruel stranger who feels empowered to inflict his sadism on her while privileged with the life of a nice guy, with a good job, a loving family. A guy who I’m willing to bet has at some point said that “as the father of a daughter” he of course is appalled by various misogynistic atrocities in the news, while harboring this sick hobby for who knows how long.

And in the classic Final Girl tradition, as extolled by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Jessica sets her mind to overcoming him, and whatever he represents to us, showing us there’s hope, even when we’re all alone.

The screenplay is credited to Mattias Olsson, who wrote and co-directed the 2011 Swedish film FORSVUNNEN (GONE) this is remade from (and which I have not been able find on DVD or streaming yet). Credit is also due to composer Nima Fakhrara (EXISTS, BECKY) for the sparse, foreboding score.

If you’re up for a straight forward, intense thriller – especially if you appreciate a CRAWL-like lack of beating around the bush – this is it. More John Hyams movies, please.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020 at 2:14 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Alone”

  1. Since you asked, CHICAGO P.D. is sort of a PG-rated version of THE SHIELD, and it’s somewhere between boneheaded and evil. It’s a Dick Wolf cop show on NBC, so you’re always meant to root for the main guy and his team, even though he’s a kick-in-the-door, haul-prisoners-to-a-black-site-and-literally-torture-them sociopath leading a street-commando death squad. Occasionally the writers will barf up a “moral dilemma,” like pointing out that some Chicago police officers are wildly racist knuckle-walkers, but then one of the “good cops” (a black member of the core team) gets to beat up the bad racist cop behind a bar as the closing credits roll, so it’s “solved.” The longer you think about it, the sicker the show seems, though it’s directed kinetically enough that it provides a kind of Neanderthal thrill to watch them kick in doors and shoot people. I don’t recommend watching it for any length of time, though. It’s one of the most brain-poisoning shows I’ve ever seen.

  2. This sounds exactly up my alley. I will check it out as soon as it’s in a format I can access.

    One quibble, Vern: Gary Cole doesn’t have a mustache in OFFICE SPACE. Glasses, yes, but no mustache. Are you thinking of John C. McGinley? Because he definitely rocks the glasses-stache combo in that movie. And would be absolutely terrifying coming after you at night in the woods.

  3. burningambulance – That’s what I was afraid of. He did a Chicago Fire too – maybe that’s more wholesome.

    Mr. Majestyk – I was thinking of Gary Cole and those glasses, but you’re right about the mustache. I have changed it to reflect that he just reminds me of Gary Cole in general.

  4. It’s kinda weird that Gary Cole hasn’t done that many villains. He seems to be perfect for this type of bad guy roles. I remember he was a kinda a villain in A Simple Plan, and I thought I remember seeing him play a seriel killer, but I couldn’t find anything. Maybe he played one on the tv-series Numbers, or another show? You would think Gary Cole would be perfect for the Gary Sinise, Martin Donovan or John McGinley type of sleazy traitor/villain character.

  5. Gary Cole had a great villain role on a weird nineties show called American Gothic, where he was a small-town sheriff who was also some sort of evil wizard.

  6. Ghost, way, way back in the 80s at the start of his career Cole played a guy in a 2 part mini-series titled Fatal Vision who killed his wife and children. I think. It’s based on a true story and I can’t remember if the guy was ever proven to be guilty. Or if it’s one of those that a bunch of people think he’s guilty, but there’s also a lot of proof he was innocent. There’s a couple cases from that time that are freakily similar and I get them mixed up. I’m pretty sure he’s portrayed as guilty in the show. I remember absolutely nothing from it, but it must have made some kind of crazy impression on my child’s mind because I’ve always remembered he played this guy and kind of thought of him as a villain ever since.

  7. Hyams doesn’t need much of a plot. I haven’t seen a ton of his work but with him it seems to be the details that makes his stuff good. Like there was an episode of that Black Summer and the entire ep was about a guy trying to escape from one single zombie. That’s it, that was a half hour show. But it was the levels of problems that arise and the details of trying to get away and the issues one zombie can give made it really fun. Also it was cool that he would shoot really long takes. I think he all by himself has brought some sort of quality to The Asylum.

  8. I hadn’t thought about that old Gary Cole movie (Fatal Vision?) in years, but I just thought about it a couple of days ago when I saw that FX is doing a new miniseries based on the same or similar events. I think this new one is based on a book by Errol Morris that was critical of the original book, which had been strongly pro-prosecution.

    In any event, this movie Alone sounds tasty.

  9. I thought Gary Cole was pretty good as the bad guy in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS

  10. What a great looking movie. Hyams uses the frame to establish the stakes. You don’t need any flashy gimmicks when you get the basics right.

  11. Eddie Lummox, thank you!

    No discussion on Gary Cole as a bad-ass should be complete without a mention of American Gothic, a seriously good and creepy show and Cole’s Charismatic & Evil Sheriff was actually the lead, who snaps the neck of a young girl in the pilot and she subsequently haunts the town for the remainder of the season as a ghost. Ahead of it’s time, it got cancelled after 1 season. Done today, it would be a 3 -season minimum.

  12. Gary Cole is also a pretty prolific voice actor, and, while it’s not quite an antagonist role per se, I particularly enjoy him as the sleazy, mildly-crooked recurring character Sgt. Bosco on Bob’s Burgers.

  13. Menchaca does a great job in The Outsider. He’s one of those complex characters where when you first meet him you think (*SPOILERS*) he’s a dick. Then you think he’s one of those curmudgeonly characters that is a nice guy underneath the dickishness. Then you think, no, he’s just a dick and the people around him let him slide on it. Then he’s evil, but really he’s the victim of the Great Evil and is a pathetic Renfield type you feel sorry for. He does a great job at these complexities.

  14. I forgot Gary Cole was in Pineapple Express. It’s such weird villain role, where he plays it like he is not a villain. Especially if you compare him to what Rosie Perez does. I never saw or actually heard about American Gothic. Wonder what channel it was shown in my country, probably one of cable channels as we didn’t get cable where I lived. Pretty much only had two tv-channels through the 90’s.

  15. Is it safe to assume the John Hyams/Nicolas Winding Refn re-whatevering of Maniac Cop is NOT happening?

  16. Like his father Peter before him, I ‘m basically game for whatever John Hyams is up to and he has not disappointed. This is a well-crafted little suspense film and I was glad to catch this on the big screen tonight. There’s some interesting visual storytelling throughout, especially when he uses rack focusing to direct our attention or create some suspense like at the rest stop.
    It was cool to see Yeardley Smith credited as one of the producers. She also produced Hyams’ ALL SQUARE before this, which I also recommend. There’s a lot going on in it than the advertising would lead to you believe, but I also understand why they tried to sell it as they did. I tweeted to John Hyams how I hoped it would get a physical media release with his commentary but he was pessimistic on the future of such things.

  17. The Maniac Cop thing is still in the works, but has evolved into a TV series.

  18. Sigh. Because of course it did.

  19. Yeah, I want a series of movies. That said, I think Black Summer might conquer all of the problems you have with TV. It totally works for me, anyway. It’s only 8 episodes, the longest 44 minutes, but one of them is only 20 minutes. They seem to design them based on the needs of the story and not the formula of what an episode of TV is supposed to be. I’m surprised more people haven’t taken advantage of streaming’s lack of constraints in that way.

  20. Yeah I don’t know why they make streaming stuff like they’re constrained in some way, like a schedule when you need to be done by 9 so the next show can come on. Black Summer was pretty surprising, The Asylum pretty much sucks but Hyams is their one bit of quality. Black Summer was definitely somewhat cheesy but fast paced and pretty fun, I liked how they structured every episode to be it’s own mini-movie that had a resolution. It was almost like an anthology with semi-recurring characters.

  21. This one was pretty great I felt. But it also made me sad that Hyams is this good and we’ve forced him to make a living by having to make freakin’ TV Shows for The Asylum.

  22. This week i watched this and DRAGON EYES, catching up on my readily available John Hyams. I don’t have Hulu and can’t find ALL SQUARE elsewhere, and there’s an early one I also can’t find…but I’ve now seen all f his classics.

    I have loved them all. The two UNIVERSAL SOLDIERS I think are impossible to top in DTV action, topping most in the theater action. I love the mix of hard hitting action, thought provoking sci-fi satire and outright weirdness. DRAGON EYES was pretty good. Love the stylized nature of it, the really brutal fights, and the surreal “is this town inhabited totally by gang members?” feel.

    ALONE was pretty good. I have seen a number of movies very similar to this. Some of them quite famous, some of them pretty underground. This is one of the better ones. A change in direction for Hyams and a very slick thriller.

    I loved Z NATION. I am not sure which episodes are his or not, but saw them all. That was a real fun run. I liked it more than WALKING DEAD actually….it had a weird EC COMICS thing going on, more tongue in cheek and oddball. BLACK SUMMER was pretty cool as well, but a totally different feel. More one big chase. It didn’t connect much thematically or story wise other than its about zombies. We’ll see it if connects more if it’s given a second season.

    I would totally love Hyams to graduate to the big league franchise guys. I’d love to see him tackle a comic book character or a STAR WARS. And he seems born to do one of those ones that they just keep making to keep the IP alive…like a TERMINATOR or PREDATOR!! Any one of these franchises could get the USOL 5 treatment….and I even like the lesser entries in almost all of them. But man….he could give them a jolt.

    But I would also love it if he kept making stuff at this level. Odd little gems that sort of sneak out under the radar.

    No matter where he ends up and what he makes next….I’ll definitely check it out.

  23. He’s so goddamn good at the little details, in a way that is so exceptionally rare. So few working filmmakers can hit this sort of mark (Fincher, Villeneuve occasionally when he’s in the pocket). The rack focuses, the subtle pans that quietly reveal details, the sound design. I actually love that the design of this movie lets him foreground these things with a bare minimum of setup.

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