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A LONELY PLACE TO DIE is about a small group of people caught up in a terrifying experience where they don’t know what’s coming next—and that’s the same experience, albeit a much safer one, that a hopefully much larger audience will have when watching it. Anyone reading this review has most likely seen more than their share of violent wilderness-survival thrillers, but this one makes the whole subgenre seem fresh and frightening again.
The movie (currently playing Montreal’s Fantasia festival) confirms its technical bona fides right away, taking us into a ravishingly shot, mountainous area of Scotland where Alison (Melissa George) and two friends (Ed Speleers and Alec Newman) are climbing. They get into a bit of a pickle, staged by director Julian Gilbey for maximum vertiginous tension, before meeting up with another couple (Garry Sweeney and Kate Magowan) and setting off for the next leg of their trek into the wilderness. And of course, like groups of friends heading into the woods always do in the movies, they start hearing strange noises coming from the trees, and one of them decides to set off and investigate…
Right now I’ll say that if you want to fully appreciate all of A LONELY PLACE TO DIE’s twists and turns, you can stop reading this review now and just know that it's a must-see, in no small part because Gilbey and his co-screenwriter/brother William keep throwing new curveballs into the scenario, taking the movie well off the beaten path of the stalking-in-the-woods genre. There are surprises and subversions throughout, and moments where it seems like Gilbey’s showing his hand too soon—revealing his villains early on, for example—only for them to be revealed as part of the filmmaker’s devious design. He even successfully pulls off a fake-out dream sequence that had the Fantasia audience applauding for having been so effectively fooled.
To reveal only the very basics of the plot, the quintet wind up in a position of protecting a terrified little girl named Anna (Holly Boyd), and pursued by a couple of ruthless killers (Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) through a harsh and unforgiving environment. The Gilbeys did serious location research to prepare for shooting the climbing/descending sequences, and there’s never a moment you’re not convinced that the characters are precariously perched and hanging over dangerous drops. Shot on assorted Scottish locations, A LONELY PLACE TO DIE has a strong sense of environment (courtesy of cinematographer Ali Asad) that heightens the feeling of danger; the life-and-death stakes seem real from start to finish. As do the imperiled quintet’s decisions; even when they take familiar actions like splitting up at a key point in the action, their choices always seem plausibly motivated by the dangerous situation they’ve found themselves in.
The casting of unfamiliar faces other than George helps sustain the who-will-survive suspense, and they all give solid, sympathetic performances. For her part, George—who's becoming a sort of modern Jamie Lee Curtis of the international genre scene—is a compelling heroine, brave and realistically heroic in the face of the mounting threat and committed to keeping herself and Anna alive. As the traumatized Anna, little actress Boyd is a real find, while Harris and McCole enact a couple of truly and memorably vicious bastards. The former also has a great slow-burn face-off with HELLBOY’s Karel Roden, whose particular part in the story won’t be given away here.
The scenario of weekend adventurers thrust into life-or-death peril recalls another superior British production, Neil Marshall’s THE DESCENT, and like that film, A LONELY PLACE TO DIE delivers big thrills on a low budget and announces its director as a talent to be reckoned with. Having previously won notice with the fact-based crime thriller RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER (he and his brother also teamed with Jake West to edit the latter’s more lighthearted DOGHOUSE), Gilbey is clearly poised for even bigger things. In the meantime, here’s hoping this film receives the distribution deal it deserves so that it doesn’t go lonely in the U.S.
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