Hyams: Alone (2020)

Alone is one of the scariest films I’ve seen in years, melding various types of horror around a remarkably familiar premise – a young woman who is stalked by a man in the Pacific Northwest. There are only three characters in this setup, but they’re barely characters in the regular sense. First, we have Jessica, played by Jules Wilcox, a widow who is moving from Annapolis to Oregon. Then, we have the Man, played by Marc Menchaca, who first glimpses Jessica as she’s trying to overtake him on the highway. From there, he watches her at petrol stations and rest stops, and tries to lure her out of her car with a fake breakdown, before engineering a collision, abducting her, and then keeping her prisoner in his cabin in the woods.

However, Jessica escapes, and makes her way back into the woods, where she meets the third character in the film, Robert, a hunter, played by Anthony Feald. Yet Robert only has a cameo, as director John Hyams returns to the cat-and-mouse game between Jessica and the Man, as night falls, and she starts to succumb to her injuries. The film is divided into five discrete sections – The Road, The River, The Rain, The Night and The Clearing – and each of them ratches up the suspense until it’s almost unbearable to watch, while the action often seems to be unfolding in intensified real time, so vividly does Hyams’ dramatise Jessica’s experience.

Part of what makes Alone so remarkable is that both Jessica and the Man make smart decisions, which is as uncommon in this genre as the genre itself is common. Jessica does everything she can to escape the Man, and she still ends up being taken by him, while he never makes stupid moves to let her off the hook either. As a result, Alone is perhaps the most realistic depiction of a woman confronted with a serial killer – it is to serial killer victims what Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was to serial killers, even if the style is quite different. Crime procedurals, and true crime, often fetishises the moment of vanishing, the last known sighting – or the ellipsis between when a character disappears and when their body is found. Here, we see the whole process, including the middle part when Jessica is taken hostage – primal scenes between serial killer and victim that usually remain forever private to the killer.

There’s also a strong Ted Bundy inflection here. The Pacific Northwest was the backdrop for Bundy’s first killing spree, while Bundy’s notoriety contributed to the association of the Pacific Northwest with serial killers more generally. However, Hyams, and screenwriter Mattias Olsson, also draw on Bundy’s specific modus operandi – the Man also puts his arm in a sling, and pretends to have a breakdown. Even though – or especially because – it’s not overtly about Bundy, Alone captures the spirit of Bundy more than any previous film. It’s like a Bundy film that focuses on just one victim, or Bundy as he would have been to most of his victims – a terror they encountered in the middle of nowhere, rather than a cult figure after the fact.   

Some critics have taken issue with the fact that Jessica and the Man aren’t fully characterised beyond this vague allusion to Bundy and his victims. Yet this works to capture the utter contingency of the killer-victim encounter – in Alone, their respective narratives don’t have to lock together except in the midst of this one primal connection. Serial killing narratives tend to shift between contingency and necessity – the contingency of the encounter, and the necessity (for both parties) of ending it in the way that they want. Alone oscillates between contingency and necessity in lieu of regular characterisation, or regular backstory – we never really find out where Jessica was going, or exactly what the Man was intending to do with her.

This imbues Alone with the brevity and economy of a true crime podcast. Sometimes comparing a film to a podcast can be to damn it with faint praise, because it suggests that the director hasn’t tapped into the visuality of cinema, and instead fallen back upon dialogue and exposition. In Alone, the opposite is true – Hyams reflects the way true crime podcasts lend themselves to unfinished stories, unresolved stories, stories that are driven by ellipses, aporia and vanishings. For much of Alone, we appear to be witnessing the beginning of a missing persons narrative, the last fragments before the story is lost to us, and to posterity, forever.

For that reason, Alone also reflects the feminist discourse that has developed around recent true crime podcasting – and three tenets in particular. First, Hymans focuses acutely on the vulnerability of women in public space, one of the perennial topics of podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Crime Junkie. This is especially clear in the opening act, when the Man is stalking Jessica on the road. During these scenes, the background is always changing, producing mercurial sightline shifts that turn ordinary spaces into imminent peril at a moment’s notice. Hyams continually positions Jessica at precarious cusps between the proximity of other people and total isolation – especially in spaces like petrol stations and rest stops that can go from busy to empty in a matter of moments. This continues once Jessica escapes to the woods – we only ever feel one sightline shift away from the Man appearing.

Second, Alone has an acute taste for the way that serial killers weaponise politeness – the Man knows that Jessica’s default is to comply – while the third feature that reflects true crime podcasts is the film’s understanding male bystander behaviour. Time and again, true crime podcasts focus on the reasons why men tend to believe men in situations that involve serial killers. In one of the most chilling scenes, Jessica and Robert (the hunter she meets in the woods) come upon the Man. Robert almost believes the Man when he says that Jessica is his deranged killer and by the time Robert realises his mistake, it’s too late. Here, as in so much true crime podcasting, we see the eerie capacity of sociopaths to assimilate and seem normal.

In other words, Alone has an acute sense of the serial killer as a networked figure – a figure who uses networks of public space, politeness and patriarchy to their advantage. You might say that the serial killer appreciates patriatchy, in particular, as a network of power, since the Man never quite exists separately here from a more generally dispersed and peripatetic gaze. If anything, the one-on-one encounter between Jessica and the Man just emphasises his networked powers – and he seems to take pleasure in this network as much as in killing women. The serial killer, in this formulation, is the main who enjoys patriarchy to its fullest.

This is clear in the way that the Man plays with Jessica before actually taking her. With such remote roads he could easily abduct her immediately, but instead he wants her to be unclear how long he’s been watching her – and whether he’s watching her when she appears to be watching him. One of the scariest scenes, in this respect, comes just after Jessica escapes his basement. She quickly makes her way to the kitchen, where she glimpses the Man returning from the shops, so she hides in a cupboard just behind the front door. For the next ten minutes, she watches the Man, but what makes this scene so terrifying is the possibility he’s seen her from outside – the shot makes it unclear – and is effectively watching her watch him.

This reflects Hyams’ broader tendency to place the Man in the foreground, while suggesting he may be attuned to what is happening in the background. Hyams also revels in partial gazes – characters peering around corners, out of ponds, through windows – as if no gaze is entirely free from the networked gaze of the Man. Beyond a point, the sheer act of watchingfeels terrifying – for both Jessica and the audience – since sight itself seems to have been co-opted by the Man, even or especially when he is not physically present. The serial killer here becomes the male gaze as antagonist, just as the Man’s pleasure ultimately stems from orchestrating this networked gaze, making us feel everything that we see is seen in advance.

I think this reflects a broader question, in recent horror films, of how to make the act of looking scary again in an age where visual experience has been splintered it so many forms. While the style in Alone is quite different from that of Hereditary and Midsommer, we see a similar solution here to the one that Ari Aster proposes. Both Hyams and Aster contrive premises where every gaze feels indebted to a broader networked gaze that makes the act of looking at other people looking a remarkably scary experience, especially when the people looking appear to have power, or to reflect the supposed centrality of the viewer’s own gaze.

In order to do this, both Hyams and Aster equate the background with a sentient but alien gaze – sometimes through faces in the background that are blurred in terms of agency and intention, but also by somewhat “facefying” the backdrop itself, equating it with a surveillant network that can’t be directly apprehended at any one moment. The result is the most subliminal use of backdrops since It Follows, or even The Strangers – to watch Alone is to feel it watching you, thereby throwing off your visual authority as a viewer. The very act of looking evokes a network that decentres your gaze, which is perhaps why Alone is scariest when Jessica escapes – when she makes the fallacy of presuming her gaze is hers and hers alone.

These murky background gazes are eerily dissonant with the hi-def landscapes of the film, which take on a new precision when the action shifts to the woods. Here, Hyams uses sound to evoke a blurring of the background that defies the sharp focus of the images – especially the creaking and heaving of trees, which never quite seems to match up with the visuals, as if the Man’s gaze, and the network supporting him, is making treadfalls beyond what we can actually see. Hyams also tends to circle around Jessica during these scenes, evoking, but never quite inhabiting, the Man’s own peripatetic movements, which absorb the camera into their network, but for that very reason never permit the camera to perceive them in their entirety.

To escape, then, Jessica has to meet the Man’s gaze directly – and acknowledge that his gaze already contains hers. This occurs in the final scene, and occurs in two discrete stages. First, Jessica steals the Man’s phone, and calls his wife, informing her that her husband is a sociopath, while staring the Man directly in the face. Infiltrating his network isn’t enough, however, since Jessica also has to acknowledge and embrace the fact that he has always already networked himself around her. Hence the incredible final scene, where they fight almost to the death, as a police helicopter hovers overhead, trying to find a safe site to land. 

This is an especially brutal fight scene, and the brutality comes from what seems to be a paradoxical demand from Jessica – after deflecting the Man’s gaze for the whole film, she now wants to look him directly in the eyes when he tries to do violence to her, leading them through a series of contorted postures until they fall on the ground, directly facing each other, as the helicopter, now landing, starts to ruffle their hair. Jessica’s face is covered in blood, which throws the whites of her eyes into terrifying starkness, abstracting them from her face.  

Yet the terror also comes from the peculiar circumstances of this last shot. For the first and last time in the film, Jessica and the Man are able to share an unbroken gaze, without either of them being able to deflect it into action, since they are lying, debilitated, utterly exhausted, next to each other on the sodden ground. The more Jessica stares at the Man, the more she embraces herself as a part of his patriarchal network, until she absorbs some of that network, or at least the terror that network has dispersed across the film. If most of the film follows Jessica as she tries to watch the Man (when he is really watching her) then now she actively watches the Man watching, and watching her watching him watching her, and so on, suspending the viewer between an endless regression of gazes, like a pair of facing mirrors.

Embracing and absorbing that gaze is the only way for Jessica to contest it, but she can never entirely absorb it either. Instead, the gaze is set free in these final moments, hovering between Jessica and the Man as the network that the Man embodies becomes bigger than either one of them, finally ascending until it’s absorbed, in turn, into the helicopter descending. We never see this helicopter, so the wind it casts over Jessica’s face could easily the Man’s network expanding, rippling out, until it’s subsumed into the same patriarchal system that produces the police force. While Jessica might be saved then (we never find out if she survives) this finale plays like a serial killer victim briefly glimpsing her serialised future, the way her individual experience will be understood serially, as part of a pattern, a network,  a story – the very story, perhaps, that the serial killer over-identified with in the first place. 

About Billy Stevenson (677 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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