Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Sam Patton
Writer: Matt Anderson, Michael Larson-Kangas
Producer: Kim Patton, Lauren Bates, Mara Barr, Sam Patton
Stars: Jaimi Paige, Alyshia Ochse, Claude Duhamel, Toby Nichols
A camping trip into remote woods turns deadly when a mother, her son, and best friend encounter a mysterious hiker.
Abby and her 13-year-old son Sam are still struggling with the unexpected death of Sam’s father Michael. Abby’s idea to honor her late husband involves trekking to a remote woodland trail where Michael used to hike. With her best friend Jenn coming along for emotional support, Abby hopes scattering Michael’s remains in the place he loved most might bring her and Sam some cathartic closure.
Unfortunately, a hooded hiker with reflective sunglasses and a walking stick has a far less serene agenda. It starts with Sam noticing the stone-still mystery man observing them from a distance. It escalates when the women find a strange backpack oddly positioned near their campsite. Things hit a fever pitch when the hiker finally makes a forward move to turn the trio’s trip into a terrifying fight for their lives.
“Desolation” doesn’t necessarily need any more story than that, though it does need more suspense to sharpen its edge. Director Sam Patton squeezes every drop of plot from a trim script by Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas. They collectively have the basic strokes down pat, yet their movie comes up short in creating a clever hook to set it apart in the woodland thriller subgenre.
“Desolation” runs its finger around the rim on a number of half-full, half-empty glasses. Depending on whose eye goes to the microscope, a positive and/or a negative can be seen simultaneously in any given element.
The movie plays a lot like a single scene from a “Friday the 13th” film, except extended to feature length and including only three potential victims being stalked by a silent madman who isn’t wearing a mask. Of course, there isn’t a whole lot of substance in such a setup. Still, something “Desolation” does right, and does rather well, is stoke the vibe of a 70s slasher/survival film without actually being a throwback homage or period piece. There is subtleness in the front credits font, style of cutting, and slight fade to its look, as if the film is approaching the first stage of vinegar syndrome, that puts a bit of the “Deliverance” backwoods behind the setting.
Leading ladies Jaimi Paige and Alyshia Ochse ride a second seesaw that can be taken two ways. The charismatic camaraderie between both women reads as if they have genuinely been best friends for years. Their conversations are written organically, portrayed honestly, and their good-natured charm shapes sympathetic characters from authentic moments of interaction.
The issue is anyone who cannot get into their banter will find it a bother waiting for bloody action to supplant it. Abby and Jenn’s fireside chats about mourning and motherhood, even when lightened by the puff of a joint or well-timed ribbing, comprise a bulk of first act content. It’s an appreciated effort to generate people worth investing in, even though their expository chatter doesn’t stop once their sisterly bond is established.
Sam also gets emotional backbeats. His limited dialogue is less disposable, though more frustrating due to the sullen rebelliousness dominating his demeanor. Sam’s attitude isn’t totally obnoxious, but he does consider going over that cliff.
On the other side of the faceoff, the hiker has two sides to his coin too. There is a “The Strangers” quality in the quiet way he stands stoically at a distance, showing no outward indication of insidious intentions aside from an unsettling stance. However, he also looks like a mere demented derelict, ranking him low on the list of iconic antagonists conducting cat-and-mouse chases in horror movies.
At only 75-minutes, “Desolation” is a low-risk investment for a one-time watch of sufficient killer-among-the-trees chills. Lean scope means it won’t make much more of a mark than that. With more meat to the material, the movie might not have to stretch itself through slow-to-start early scenes or belabored foreshadowing, such as coming in for close-ups on a pocketknife obviously planned for critical play later. This is still a fine first effort for Sam Patton and company. Hopefully his second outing adds unique oomph.
Review Score: 55