Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In short: A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

Warning: there shall be slight structural spoilers

A group of friends and acquaintances (Melissa George and Ed Speleers among others) are on a mountaineering trip in the Scottish Highlands. They stumble upon a little girl hidden in what amounts to a buried large wooden box. They obviously free the kid and start to make their way to the closest village. That’s quite a stretch away, and even though our protagonists are clever and tactical in their approach to the situation, the people who have buried the girl soon take it upon themselves to fetch their victim back and kill all of the unhelpful witnesses they seem to have acquired.

Clearly, not everyone will make it back to civilization, and even there, the survivors’ troubles won’t stop, for the small town standing in for it isn’t exactly police central. As a further complication, the kid’s father has sent out some armed and violent men to find her.

Julian Gibley’s fine thriller surprised me repeatedly while I was watching it, particularly since it turned from one type of thriller into a different one half way through, not exactly subverting genre expectations but shifting the sub-genre the film operates in and the connected plot beats and clichés around rather nicely. This does make the film somewhat less predictable than expected, the shift from survivalist thriller to something taking place in a less isolated environment coming at just the right moment to keep the viewer expecting some very specific plot developments on his toes.

I also appreciated how ruthless the film’s first two thirds or so got rid of its characters, going for the quick and the painful rather than the melodramatically prolonged. The villains here are after all not very interested in making our protagonists suffer – unlike those in many other wilderness based thrillers and horror films – but only in getting rid of them. The tone becomes a bit more melodramatic later on, but at that point, Gilbey has earned the melodrama, as his characters have earned the sympathy of the audience.

Speaking of the protagonists, like our villains, they too are a bit different from your typical backwoods slasher fodder in that they are not hateful creatures you only want to die and watch take their shirts off; we’re not in the realm of very deep characterisation here, but the actors are decent enough and the writing sure-handed enough I didn’t want to see them die more than their actual killers did.

In the wilderness part, Gilbey makes excellent use of the Scottish landscape, the isolated feeling open spaces can provoke as much as cramped ones do. There’s precision to the action and suspense scenes, and only in the final third the film loses some of the resulting momentum through rampant overuse of slow motion by people not named John Woo. But at least it’s not whoosh cuts or a uselessly wavering camera.

And really, if “uses a bit too much slow motion in its final thirty minutes” is the worst I can say about a film, it must have been pretty good.

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