United States: Directed by Sam Patton, 2017. Starring Jaimi Paige, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols, Claude Duhamel. 78 minutes. ★★★
I don’t have any statistical evidence that more films about getting over loss have come my way since October than normally do, but it sure seems like it, to the extent that I’ve called 2017 “the year of grief” somewhat facetiously, if not entirely disrespectfully. It rears its head again in Sam Patton’s Desolation. Recently widowed Abby (Jaimi Paige) sets off on a hiking trip with her thirteen-year-old son Sam (Toby Nicholas) and best friend Jenn (Alyshia Ochse) to scatter the ashes of her late husband and Sam’s father. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of a creepy stranger (Claude Duhamel) who starts stalking them.
This is Patton’s first feature as director and his keen eye, use of location work, and control of mood impressed me. There are a few flaws with the story and characters. The plot develops in a largely predictable way; ordinarily, I’d find this a problem, but since it looks like Patton’s going for suspense over shock or surprise, I didn’t really mind here. That could bug some viewers, though; and since it’s pretty clear from the outset which characters will live and die, the film never quite sells the danger. I appreciated how the theme of grief manifested itself in the film’s climax, but I also felt the script could have tied the themes and plot points together a bit more tightly. In keeping with the focus on suspense, Patton uses blood and gore sparingly, although it is present.
Similarly, Abby, Sam, and Jenn fall into familiar, standard-issue character roles. When the ladies discover a joint in a geocache, you just know Jenn (the mildly hedonistic bestie who brings two bottled of Cabernet on a hiking trip) will eventually suggest smoking it. Thankfully, Paige and Nichols have enough skill as actresses to add extra dimension; while Nichols’ performance doesn’t transcend the surly-teenager clichés, I didn’t find him outright annoying. Which is something.
However, Claude Duhamel provides the most compelling reason to watch Desolation. It’s not just the long hair, beard, hoodie, or ’80s-style mirrorshades that make the stranger such a menacing character. Duhamel conjures up a physical presence just oozing with menace, almost more of a force of nature than a human being. His performance kept reminding me of the big looming evil truck from Duel and the better Shapes of the Halloween franchises. He’s the sort of guy who can make you crap your pants with a slight tilt of his head.
Desolation is an entertaining survival-horror flick; while it has some flaws, it also has some strong strengths to compensate.