Tuesday, March 28, 2017

'Here Alone' (2016) Movie Review

In the event of some catastrophic event or general cinematic post-apocalyptic scenario, I would die so fast. I’m not woodsy, nor am I any type of survivalist. I wouldn’t know what to eat—or more importantly, what not to eat—how start a fire, where to find shelter, or any of the things necessary to stay alive for much longer than it takes a pack of feral dogs to tear me apart. Maybe I’d rise to the occasion and eek out a meager existence, which is what the protagonist of Rod Blackhurst’s (Amanda Knox) apocalyptic indie, Here Alone, manages to do.

After a viral epidemic sweeps the land and turns its victims into ravenous, zombie-like creatures, Ann (Lucy Walters, Power) lives alone in the deep woods, doing what she can do survive. Not a trained badass, she eats grubs, forages what she can, sleeps in the rotting husk of a mid-sized sedan, and learns by trial and error what’s edible and what will make her heave her guts into the bushes.

She’s rattled and frazzled and smears herself with a layer of animal scat, Predator style, to camouflage her scent from the infected. Ann proves capable and clever, but in grounded, realistic ways. There’s no innate knowledge of how to build traps, she takes notes on what plants she can eat, and she’s not an expert marksman. Her survival is a process.

Here Alone’s structure floats back and forth in time. From the quiet, near-silent isolation, the narrative drifts to the beginning of the outbreak as Ann and her husband, Jason (Shane West, A Walk to Remember), hightail it out of the city for the rural countryside with their newborn baby. Gradually, as the film progresses, the narrative connects the dots and fills in the negative space.

Nothing terribly unexpected happens. There are reasons she’s alone now, and that thread of Here Alone ends up where it’s obviously heading all along. And when, after a first act set up paints a picture of Ann’s isolation and the decimated world at large, writer David Ebeltoft’s script interjects a complication in the form of Olivia (Gina Piersanti, It Felt Like Love) and Chris (Adam David Thompson, Martha Marcy May Marlene), a young woman and her step father heading North to (possible) safety, it’s the obvious move.

This is where Here Alone spins its wheels. On her own, Ann is an intriguing character, traumatized and struggling, and though her narrative isn’t particularly original for this style of film, it’s engaging and compelling, dreamy and pensive. There are a few remarkably tense scenes as the handheld camera follows Ann on scavenging runs to nearby houses, and though broadcast well in advance, the asides with her family provide context and depth to her solitary brooding. Though she scarcely says a word, Lucy Walters turn in strong performance. Letting her pain and frustration bleed through in gritty, nonverbal ways, she shoulders the burden of the film in admirable fashion.

But once Olivia and Chris arrive on the scene, Here Alone loses sight of what film it wants to be. There’s an obvious level of distrust and potential danger. Are these people for real or is this one of those people-are-the-real-monsters situations? The tempo, never terribly rapid, drags through the middle section as the script fleshes out the character dynamics and an awkward romantic injection. Despite the fact that there are more people onscreen, there’s somehow less life.

Adam David Thompson walks Chris down a fine line. Is he sinister, is he earnest, is he putting on a show? Should Ann be wary or welcoming? Gina Piersanti’s damaged teen is both a petulant adolescent and a wounded young woman who’s been through some shit and has no idea how to cope. Olivia and Chris represent the opposite sides of the coin from Ann. They’re in constant motion, moving forward, toward something and away from something else, trying to forget and progress. While Ann remains in a static state of near suspended animation, never moving, never straying, never forgetting—and never trying to forget—what’s out there and what she’s done, constantly surrounded by reminders.

To call Here Alone a zombie movie is to mislabel the picture. Sure, there are zombie-ish creatures about, but they’re largely in the background. At its core, this is a post-apocalyptic story. The monsters represent an external threat—it could easily be mutant bikers or silver-painted warlords or any other typical genre menace—looming in the background and creating a larger sense of dread. In reality, though they pose a danger and provide a framework, they’re not a central narrative concern.

While Here Alone has compelling pieces, the whole lacks momentum and thrust. It goes on far too long—Rod Blackhurst and cinematographer Adam McDaid fall in love with the scenery—as lengthy static shots of the wooded landscape cut from one similar view to another and another. We get it, it’s pretty and quiet, but it bogs down the already methodical, deliberate pace into a wearisome slog—at 97 minutes, it feels like 120. [Grade: C+]

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