Minimalist Desolation a Hike into Terror
After the tragic death of her husband, Abby (Jaimi Paige) heads out on an impromptu camping trip with her son Sam (Toby Nichols) and best friend Jen (Alyshia Ochse) thinking this is the best way to say their final goodbyes. This was his favorite hike, and while a tad difficult, not to mention very remote and moderately dangerous, especially if one were to go off the trail, as they’ve all had ample experience and know how to take care of themselves in the wilderness the grieving mother doesn’t foresee any problems.
But things get strange after Sam spies a wanderer out in the distance, this hiker (Claude Duhamel) by all accounts out here on his own with few supplies, utilizing an abnormally outsized walking stick to help guide him as he moves through the forest. The guy makes them all uncomfortable, Abby and Jen starting to think they might need to alter their plans in order to avoid him. But this hiker continues to inch closer and closer with each passing step, and no matter which direction the trio go he seems to be able to track them, his intentions an unnerving mystery the group isn’t all that keen to solve.
Director Sam Patton’s wilderness survival horror/thriller Desolation is almost too subtle for its own good. The idea is that Abby, Jen and Sam never really know who this drifter is, have no understanding as to why he is doing the various things that are causing them to all grow increasingly terrified. It’s one long chase happening at the pace of a fast walk, the villain in no hurry because he knows his intended victims have to go slow or risk becoming hopelessly lost in the wilderness. It’s all very methodical, and while a sense of terror and an air of continual tension does exist, the entire enterprise is still so ephemeral and nondescript there were times where my feelings of bewilderment trumped those coming from a place of all-encompassing fear.
But Patton still does a lot of terrific things here, most notable amongst them how deftly he utilizes this outdoor environment in a manner that makes this isolated forest a fifth character with its own idiosyncratic wants, needs and desires. He also does a fine job of fleshing out the estranged relationship between Abby and Sam, doing so in brief flourishes, allowing the painful complexity of what mother and son are dealing with to blossom with a naturalistic refinement that’s far more emotionally resonant than spelling things out with melodramatic clarity would have been. Their pain and unhappiness with one another, their inability to see eye-to-eye and the frustration that causes, it all feeds the malevolent beast that starts stalking the duo along with their friend Jen.
There’s the danger doing this could paint the protagonists in something of an unflattering light, their anger, especially on Sam’s part, not altogether appealing. Patton doesn’t seem to care, however, and by fearlessly presenting these characters in a way that could make them initially appear unlikable he just as clearly makes them easier to relate to. This makes their eventual plight all the more frightening, this mysterious Michael Myers-like figure slowly but surely bearing down on the trio just when they are at their most vulnerable point.
This vulnerability also makes them just as likely to battle against their assailant in a way they maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. Had this been a happy hiking trip, had everything been hunky-dory with no lingering traumas and misunderstandings putting everyone on edge, then it’s possible a sense of complacency could have existed which would have made them unaware of this encroaching danger. Instead, Abby and Sam have something to fight for, a reason to repair their damaged relationship and get out of this forest alive. There is something to be said about how honestly Patton treats both mother and son, the director allowing this anger to be just as important to their survival as their mutual love for one another unsurprisingly is as well.
There is a point where keeping the force menacing this trio so unrelentingly and forcefully nondescript begins to work against the picture. The questions build one upon the other like cement blocks, eventually constructing a tower of ambiguity where clues to any answers as to the whys and the hows remain frustratingly invisible. There is a fine line between being craftily vague and annoyingly ambiguous, and its one Patton isn’t always able to walk successfully.
Yet tension exists, and terror continually follows it, everything building to a suitably violent and destructive climax that kept me moving forward in my seat eager to discover how things were going to turn out. Patton knows what he wants from the material, stripping away anything that could remotely resemble artifice while finding the horrific core of Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas’s script in a way that is intimately personal. He puts the viewer right into Abby and Sam’s shoes, and as such Desolation becomes a hike into the unknown that’s difficult to forget.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)