Review: ‘Alone’ (2020), starring Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca

October 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jules Willcox in “Alone” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Alone” (2020)

Directed by John Hyams

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of Oregon, the horror flick “Alone” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow traveling by herself on a road trip is kidnapped by a stranger after a a road-rage incident.

Culture Audience: “Alone” will appeal primarily to people who like watching realistic and suspenseful “women in peril” movies.

Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca in “Alone” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

If you consider how many movies are about women who’ve been kidnapped and held captive in an isolated area, then it’s pretty commendable that “Alone” takes this very unoriginal concept and still makes it a very suspenseful movie that isn’t tacky or overly melodramatic. “Alone” (directed by John Hyams) also makes great use of locations and having a small number of people in the cast to make this a satisfying thriller that is horrifying without being exploitative.

When it comes down to it, there are really only two main characters in this film: the kidnapper and his victim. The movie (written by Mattias Olsson) is told from the perspective of the protagonist Jessica Swanson (played by Jules Wilcox), a woman in her 30s who is on a road trip in an unnamed rural part of Oregon. Jessica is taking this trip by herself, and the beginning of the movie shows her closing the door of a U-Haul trailer where she’s packed her possessions, as she’s about to embark on this trip.

Jessica is moving somewhere to start a new life. She’s grieving over the death of her husband Eric (played by Jonathan Rosenthal), who’s shown in brief flashbacks in home videos that Jessica watches on her computer tablet. Eric died six months earlier, and his cause of death is revealed later in the story.

There’s almost nothing else about Eric that’s stated in the movie, such as how long he and Jessica were married or what he did for a living. But it’s very clear, based on the snippets of home videos that Jessica watches while she silently cries, that she and Eric were happy together. They had no children together, and Jessica seems to be a loner, because her concerned parents (who do not have names in the movie) are only people she checks in with by phone during her road trip. (Betty Moyer is the voice of Jessica’s mother. Shelly Lipkin is the voice of Jessica’s father.)

Jessica has an independent streak, because it’s revealed in her phone conversations with her parents that she impulsively decided to pack up and leave early for her road trip, after making plans for her parents to come over to her place and help her move. This sudden change of plans doesn’t case major problems with her parents, but they seem to be a little bit thrown-off they didn’t get a chance to help her pack and say goodbye to her. They’re also worried about her traveling by herself, but Jessica assures them that she will be just fine.

Her final destination is never talked about in the movie, but Jessica is heading north, and she begins her trip during the day. As she drives through an isolated, heavily wooded area of Oregon where each side of the road has only one lane, Jessica comes across a black Jeep that’s driving too slow in front of her. She tailgates the Jeep, but the driver either doesn’t see her or doesn’t take the hint to speed up. The Jeep’s license plates are covered in mud, making it impossible to get a clear view of the license plate number.

Finally, in frustration, Jessica decides to pass the Jeep, even though it means she would have to go in the lane for traffic that’s going in the opposite direction. She waits until the coast is clear and then goes in the opposite lane. But the driver of the Jeep (played by Marc Menchaca) sees her and speeds up, to indicate that he doesn’t want her to get in front of him.

Just as this happens, a big-rig truck is driving right toward Jessica, and it looks like she’s about to crash into it, but she’s able to increase her speed fast enough and swerve into the correct lane in front of the obnoxious Jeep driver, who then decides to tailgate her. Rather than continue this cat-and-mouse road rage situation, Jessica drives off the nearest side exit and waits long enough to let the Jeep drive ahead, so that by she gets back on the main road, the Jeep is nowhere in sight.

However, miles later, when she’s at a gas station, she’s startled by someone tapping on her window. It’s the Jeep driver: a bespectacled, red-haired man who’s in his late 30s or early 40s. This stranger tells Jessica that he’s sorry for the road-rage incident earlier. He makes a weird excuse that he had been texting while driving and didn’t see her at first, and when she swerved in front of him, he kind of got angry.

Jessica accepts his apology, but senses that something is “off” with this guy, because he’s being too nosy when he asks her what her name is, where she’s headed, and if she lives nearby. He doesn’t volunteer the same information about himself. Jessica tells him her first name only, and gives a vague reply that she’s headed north.

This guy seems to want to continue the conversation, but Jessica politely cuts it short and tells him that she needs to go. However, he’s obviously seen her U-Haul trailer, so he can figure out that she might be someone who’s not from the area and might be unfamiliar with the terrain if she gets kidnapped. Because you know that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

The movie builds up suspense to this kidnapping, by showing this mystery man encountering Jessica at other times during the trip, just like a predator stalking his prey. His name is revealed toward the end of the movie, but for the purposes of this review, he’ll just be referred to as the “kidnapper” from now on.

The next time Jessica sees the man who will kidnap her, his Jeep is blocking the road, and he’s got the car lid up, as if he’s having car problems. He’s also got his arm in a sling. Because his car is stopped in the middle of the lane, Jessica stops her car.

He flags her down and tells her that his car engine suddenly died, and he needs a ride to the nearest gas station. He also asks Jessica to help him move his Jeep off of the road. In a lot of kidnapping movies like this, the victim is fooled too easily and makes bad decisions in order to be polite or look like a Good Samaritan. What’s great about this movie is that the victim doesn’t make bad decisions and doesn’t easily fall for a seemingly harmless-looking person.

Instead of agreeing to let this strange man into her car, Jessica offers to call the nearest gas station for him. She tells him she that she can use her car’s GPS to find it. Seeing that Jessica is no fool and that she has a working cell phone, the kidnapper then says that he knows which gas station it is, and then tries to get Jessica to open the car door so that she can help him move his car out from the road.

Of course, getting a “stuck” car off of the road is what a tow truck is supposed to do. Jessica knows it, the kidnapper knows it, and she senses that this guy is up to no good because he’s acting as if she’s the only one who can help him. And it’s a red flag that he declined Jessica’s offer to call the nearest service station, and there’s no mention if he has his own phone to call for help. Jessica makes an excuse that she has to go because she’s late for a meeting, and she drives away.

It should come as no surprise that the kidnapper doesn’t really have an arm injury. He wore a sling on his arm to make himself look harmless. Faking an arm injury by wearing a sling or a cast is a tactic that kidnappers sometimes use to lure their victims when they ask for the victims’ help as a way to catch them off-guard. It’s a tactic that notorious serial killer Ted Bundy used for many of his victims.

During her road trip, when Jessica parents call her or she calls them, Jessica doesn’t really tell her parents about her encounters with this stranger, because there’s nothing they can do about it. What exactly can she say anyway? This guy didn’t break any laws with her. She doesn’t know his name or license plate number. She only has the description of him and his Jeep.

However, Jessica starts to become frightened when she sees the man in the Jeep again. This time, it’s at night and she’s at a nearly deserted rest stop. She quickly leaves the area and calls 911 when she thinks he’s following her. But it’s a false alarm, because it’s another car that was behind her.

However, as soon as she hangs up the phone, Jessica suddenly loses control of her car, which swerves off into a grassy area by the side of the road. When she gets out of the car, she sees that one of her tires has been slashed. As she gets back into the car to call for help, that’s when the guy in the Jeep suddenly drives up, uses a tire iron to smash her front passenger window, assaults her and kidnaps her.

Jessica wakes up to find that she’s in a locked basement in an isolated cabin in the woods. She begs the mystery kidnapper to let her go and promises she won’t tell anyone. He replies with a sadistic smile, “Do you think you’re the first one to say that?” The rest of the movie shows Jessica’s ordeal in trying to escape.

The believability of “Alone” rests largely on how the actors portray their characters. And fortunately, Willcox and Menchaca give very believable performances in their roles. The horror of “Alone” comes from the fact that there are many real-life kidnappers and serial killers who look like “average people” with “average lives” but they have an evil, twisted side to them that’s well-hidden from a lot of people. And as previously stated, “Alone” doesn’t make the female victim a gullible dimwit, which is an annoying flaw of other kidnapping movies.

The only slightly false note in “Alone” is when Jessica calls 911 and tells the 911 operator that she doesn’t know where she is and can’t even give a general location. This is after viewers see that Jessica’s car is equipped with GPS. However, this fairly minor plot hole could have an explanation that maybe Jessica was in panic mode and wasn’t thinking clearly.

In terms of kidnapping movies, “Alone” doesn’t do anything innovative. But it keeps the suspense throughout the entire film and presents enough realistic scenarios that it will definitely serve as a cautionary tale for anyone taking a long road trip alone. This movie is proof that you don’t need flashy action stunts or a large cast to make a very effective thriller.

Magnet Releasing released “Alone” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘The Dark Divide,’ starring David Cross and Debra Messing

September 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Cross in “The Dark Divide” (Photo courtesy of Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios)

“The Dark Divide”

Directed by Tom Putnam

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1995, primarily in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state, the drama “The Dark Divide” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Native Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies and moths) defies the expectations of skeptics by going on a scientific exploration that involves camping outdoors for several weeks by himself in a remote forest area.  

Culture Audience: “The Dark Divide” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about camping, hiking and dealing with the death of a loved one.

David Cross and Debra Messing in “The Dark Divide” (Photo courtesy of Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios)

The first scene of the entertaining and occasionally emotionally moving drama “The Dark Divide” is of lepidopterist Dr. Robert “Bob” Pyle (played by David Cross) running in fear somewhere in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state. Is he running for his life? Is he being chased by Bigfoot, the creature that’s alluded to throughout the movie? The answer comes in the last third of the film.

But before then, “The Dark Divide” (written and directed by Tom Putnam) takes a compelling and sometimes meandering journey with a character who goes on this getaway trip to look for butterflies and moths, but he’s really looking for a way to process his grief over the death of his wife, who was a naturalist and artist. “The Dark Divide” is inspired by the real-life experiences of Bob Pyle, whose wife Thea died of cancer in 2013. Pyle authored the 1995 book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.”

In the movie, which takes place in 1995, Bob’s wife Thea (played by Debra Messing) dies about halfway through the film (this is not spoiler information, since her death is the catalyst for Bob taking this fateful trip), after she had a long battle with cancer. The movie isn’t in chronological order, but it’s easy to figure out the order in which things happened. The first third of the movie shows Bob and Thea’s home life. They don’t know it yet but it will be the last year of Thea’s life.

Thea (who has been going through chemotherapy) and Bob try to have as normal as an existence as possible. They attend a cocktail party that has several of Bob’s scientist colleagues who are also in attendance. As a lepidopterist, Bob is interested in trying to save the endangered species of butterflies and moths that he studies. At the party, Bob tells two of his male colleagues—Professor Trimble (played by Shelly Lipkin) and Professor Keasey (played by Tony Doupe)—that he’s thinking about going to Gifford Pinchot National Forest to find any of these endangered species.

“Unless we catalogue all the species there, how do we know if the numbers are dwindling?” Bob asks the colleagues. The colleagues agree, but they react with skepticism that Bob is qualified to do this kind of field work by himself. They ask him what his experience is with camping, and he admit it’s minimal and that he hasn’t really gone camping since he was a child. And he’s never done any training on how to survive in a remote, outdoor area.

Meanwhile, back at home, Thea and Bob have moments of despair about her cancer. Bob can only comfort Thea when he does heartbreaking things like help her in the bathroom when she vomits or when he accompanies her to doctor appointments for her cancer treatment. Thea is generally more accepting of her cancer diagnosis than Bob seems to be. She makes it clear to Bob and anyone else that she doesn’t want their pity.

One day, Bob is working on his front-door porch with his typewriter, and all he can type is the word “cancer.” Thea notices Bob is in a mopey mood and she says to him, “Bob, why don’t you dial back on being miserable?” He replies, “I’m sorry but my wife is …” He can’t finish saying the words he wants to say, so Thea finishes the sentence with what she wants to say: “Alive.”

Thea tells Bob to “go with your girlfriend Marcia to look for specimens, scribble down that poetry you keep threatening to write, and just get away from me for a while.” (Marcia is the nickname for Bob’s butterfly net.) Bob takes her advice, but while out camping, he soon finds out that his colleagues were right: He doesn’t know much about survival in the outdoors.

When some Girl Scouts walk past his campsite, one of the girls tells Bob how he stored his food in the wrong way. He needed to use branches to hang the food so that bears couldn’t get to it. You know you’re ill-equipped to be go camping in the woods when a Girl Scout knows more than you do. Later, Bob nearly falls down a cliff while trying to catch a butterfly in his net.

Bob and Thea have a loving relationship, and Thea tries to lift his spirits during the cancer ordeal with her dry sense of humor. In one scene, when they are home alone together, Thea says to Bob: “Knock, knock.” Bob replies, “Who’s there?” Thea answers, “Death.”

Bob says, “That’s not funny.” Thea responds, “I’m sorry. It was a little funny.” Bob reluctantly admits that the joke was “a little funny,” and they both have a laugh over it. This tender moment is referenced later in the movie to great emotional effect when Bob has a life-or-death situation and he doesn’t know if he’s going to make it out alive.

After Thea dies, Bob gets a letter in the mail informing him that he’s gotten a Guggenheim grant for $11,000 to study the endangered species at Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The grant is his motivation to go back to the forest. The trip is also his way of honor Thea after she died, since Bob and Thea’s relationship was strengthened by their common passion for nature and animals. (Cross and Messing are very good in their roles as Bob and Thea. The couple’s marriage is the soul of this movie.)

Before he heads into the very remote area of the woods, Bob stops off at a convenience store to buy food and supplies. He sees a newspaper tabloid in the store with a front page story titled “I Was Bigfoot’s Love Slave.” The store clerk named Monty (played by Cameron Esposito) notices Bob glancing at the tabloid story and says, “Tourists go nuts for that crap.”

Bob has a map and asks the clerk for directions on where he needs to go. Monty looks at Bob and tells him that the trail where he wants to go is “no joke” and that Bob doesn’t look very well-equipped to handle the treacherous terrain. The warning doesn’t really scare Bob, who is determined to achieve his goals to look for the specimens that he wants to find.

The rest of the movie shows Bob experiencing a series of mishaps and some strangers during his mostly lonely trip. Some of the strangers are friendlier than others. Some of them (such as a group of construction workers in the forest) are hostile to environmentalists, so Bob is careful about who he tells that he’s very much a pro-conservation person who believes in protecting endangered species as much as possible.

Bigfoot is a possible looming presence in the area. Many of the people who are in the forest believe that Bigfoot exists, while Bob doesn’t believe in Bigfoot or any creature that can’t be scientifically explained or proven. One of the most memorable encounters that Bob has is with a family of hikers, who almost shoot him because they think he might be Bigfoot.

Bob ends up briefly hanging out over a campfire at night with this family, which consists of a middle-aged married couple named Teresa (played by Kimberly Guerrero) and Shayne (played by David Koechner); Teresa’s young-adult son Billy (played by Dyami Thomas) from a previous relationship; and Teresa’s mother Marie (played by Harvest Moon), who was the one who was convinced that Bob could’ve been Bigfoot when the family first saw him in the woods.

Billy and Marie are the two people in the family who are the most convinced that the legend of Bigfoot is true. (Everyone in the family is Native American except for Shayne, who is white.) Over the campfire, Billy says, “When white man gets too greedy, Bigfoot smashes his truck as revenge.”

Not long after Bob amicably parts ways with this family, he sees that a construction work site in the woods has been vandalized. Bob gets falsely accused by some of the workers of causing the damage, but he convinces them he didn’t do it. And in another scene, Bob sees an ape-like footprint that’s twice the size of a man’s footprint. Coincidence?

“The Dark Divide” isn’t really a story about Bigfoot conspiracy theories or legends. Instead, the movie (which has stunning cinematography by Sean Bagley, especially the sweeping aerial views of nature) is often a meditative piece that shows Bob communing with nature and being alone with his thoughts. Because he encounters his own precarious situations on this trip, it gives him a new appreciation of life. People should not expect a fast-paced wilderness adventure story with this quietly effective movie because it’s about facing grief and inner demons instead of any dangerous creatures in the woods.

Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios released “The Dark Divide” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2020. The movie’s VOD release is on November 10, 2020.