Split into five parts, John Hyams’ Alone tells a familiar story of predator versus prey. After the death of her husband, Jessica (Jules Willcox) packs her life into a U-Haul trailer and sets off driving towards the next chapter of her life with urgent pace. It’s unclear where exactly she’s going —maybe to her parents’— but we learn that she’s set off earlier than originally planned. When out on the road, Jessica has trouble with a black car slowing her down, which speeds up when she tries to overtake them, causing her to nearly collide with a truck.
Following this incident, Jessica sees the car at every rest stop, raising her suspicions: this can’t be a coincidence. Soon enough, she meets the Man (Marc Menchaca) behind the wheel — a stereotypical creep with a walrus moustache and light framed glasses. He apologises for the mix up on the road earlier, while Jessica listens from the safety of her own car. She has her window down, but not enough so he can reach inside. The window is a shield and works with the proximity and high angle of the camera to show how guarded and on edge she is.
The repeated encounter with the Man makes her cautious of other men around her. Eventually, Jessica loses control of her car and goes off-road, only to find out that someone has slashed her tires. The Man appears and kidnaps her, placing her in a cold basement where she pleads for her life. “Do you think you’re the first one to say that?” he retrots, creating a chilling sense of unease. But this isn’t a torture film and Jessica soon escapes, finally setting the game of cat and mouse into full swing.
With a premise as common as this, it can be hard to make the story unique and engaging, but Alone pulls it off thanks to plenty of thoughtful film-making. Right from the start, the camerawork follows Jessica tightly — it keeps us close to her so we can share her anxiety about being followed. Her actions are smart and realistic, rather than the result of dumb luck, which creates convincing fraught tension that makes it hard to look away. Alone doesn’t need to rely on driving up the stakes with bad decision making, nor does it portray Jessica as a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s a strong woman who taps into the trauma of her husband’s sudden passing.
Alone is filled with beautiful shots that highlight the natural scenery and taut camerawork which creates exciting, yet anxiety inducing suspense. The film’s atmosphere also feels cold with the rain, the trees in the woods, the darkness of night, and the deep bodies of water — all of which Jessica finds herself hiding in. There are no gimmicks, jump scares or suspenseful music. Instead, the film relies on the sounds of nature for its score, including the spatter of rain, the chirping of birds, and rustling of trees. It heavily aids the stripped back feel of this predator versus prey chase, further adding to the realism.
Alone doesn’t have to push the boundaries of its genre as it proves that a director’s vision can make or break a film — the script, camerawork, and cinematography all raise the film above others like it. Willcox and Menchaca’s strong performances also carry the action and make the film highly atmospheric. The only things working against it are the fact the narrative feels slightly overstretched despite the short one hour and 20 minute runtime, and we also don’t learn much about Jessica. Maybe it’s not necessary, but it would’ve really put the film up there with the best if they created an emotional relationship between Jessica and the audience, especially considering her grief. We only want her to survive because we can connect with the fact she’s a woman in a situation many of us fear, because, as shown in Alone, it’s all too easy. You can make the right decisions like Jessica does to avoid ending up in this situation, but still end up as the prey.
Alone enjoyed its European Premiere as part of the virtual edition of Grimmfest 2020 in the UK, it is available in select cinemas and VOD in the US now
by Toni Stanger