Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Review: A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

    Genre ain’t nothin’ but a word…

     There’s a refreshing sense of discovery to A Lonely Place to Die, a mishmash thriller of various genre tropes. The movie starts as an outdoor rock-climbing adventure, but quickly evolves as the story progresses, changing up its style and tone with each new twist. Survival thriller, slasher flick, international conspiracy, balls-out action movie - all come into play as the film pushes on, its relentless pace ratcheting up breathlessly with each turn of the genre-bending knife. It’s this willingness to shake things up that keeps the film interesting, and save it from the occasional stumble here and there.

    We open on three climbers scaling a vast rocky face in Scotland, and from the moment they grip the mountainside and begin their ascent, the film begins its agonizing tension-building: immediately things go wrong, and one of the climbers very nearly falls to his death. This is Ed (Ed Speelers), new boyfriend to our main character Alison (Melissa George), who - along with their guide Rob (Alec Newman) - dashes to Ed’s rescue in a virtuoso climbing sequence. On their way back, Alison admonishes Ed, warning him of the dangers of falling into complacency when climbing - you have to be on your toes, she tells him. Sound advice for viewers of the film, too, as director and co-screenwriter (along with his brother Will) Julian Gilbey refuses to hold the audience’s hand for the duration of the film, no matter how complicated or ambiguous the plot becomes. The climbing trio meet up with the rest of their party for some brief character set-up, and then the film is back to its rip-roaring pace once the group stumbles upon a secret on their hike through the Scottish highlands.

    To say what exactly they find would ruin the surprise - suffice to say that there are plenty more to come thereafter. Complications build, layers are pulled back, and characters die… and suddenly, at that. One of the many genre conventions the film plays around with is the Agatha Christie Ten Little Indians ploy - that old cornerstone of many a horror and slasher film, where our main characters are picked off one by one. The deaths come early, each more shocking than the last; always punctuating an exhausting emotional beat. But that’s only one of the many tropes the film plays around with, as there are gunfights, chases, and standoffs aplenty - all staged and photographed with some rather beautiful photography of the Scottish wild.

    The cast in films of any of these genres often fill reliable clichés, so the players assembled here have the deck stacked against their favor from the get-go. And while the characters rarely rise above two-dimensional (except possibly the murderous hunter played by Sean Harris, who’s the villain of the piece), all the performers are able to embue their characters with enough humanity to rise above the stereotypes. For instance, Ed Speeler’s character is clearly meant to be the type of wiseass jerk who you usually hope dies first, but to the actor’s credit he forgoes the hammy route and instead brings a far more nuanced take.

    The same could be said for Melissa George, who plays a rather blank tough-chick persona. We get only the slightest hints of characterization for Alison, who seems like the main protagonist until a few more important characters are introduced as the film goes on. Not a whole lot is required of George, emotionally - she spends pretty much all of the run-time either climbing, running or desperately fighting for her life - but the actress is nonetheless a strong presence throughout. Although the most significant thing we learn about her character is that she one day wants to climb the north face of the Eiger mountain, George remains credible and believable in the role (which is great to see, as I‘ve always felt the actress has been criminally overlooked).

    Talking at length about the other roles would venture too far into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that actors such as Eamonn Walker, Karel Roden and Sean Harris are suitably fantastic when they finally show up and reveal the film’s true colors. Harris especially deserves special mention, as his character winds up being the most fascinating of the entire movie.

    One of the film’s biggest strengths (and slight weaknesses) is the ambiguity that envelops the entire plot. We start out the film as in the dark as the main group of characters, learning the secrets of the plot bit by bit as the story goes on. Early random, seemingly unconnected scenes start to piece themselves into a captivating whole, but in the end, it's still a little too ambiguous for my tastes. I did like the overall, lost-in-the-wilderness feel that pervades the whole movie, in effect putting us in the same mindset of Alison and her friends. But the ending raps up far too quickly when things really start to get interesting. For instance, *SPOILERS* was the whole kidnapping ruse staged by the girl’s father in an attempt to get money from his ex-wife? Why did Karel Roden’s character let the girl go with Alison in the ambulance at the end? *END SPOILERS* We learn the “why” of the mystery, but the details are still frustratingly vague... Certainly not helped by the fact that much of the dialogue at the end is spoken in quiet tones and heavily accented. Normally I don’t mind open-ended movies, as usually they’re designed as such to keep in line with the film’s overall themes and tone. But there’s nothing really deeper going on here under the surface… At least near as I can tell. I really need to see the film again, as perhaps another viewing might shed some more light overall.

    And that’s really high praise to give to a film, that I immediately wanted to watch the whole thing all over again once it was done. If I’m disappointed, it’s only out of a want for the film to step out of the really-good territory it occupies into flat-out great.       

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