By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jaimi Paige, Toby Nichols and Alyshia Ochse
Directed by Sam Patton
Written by Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas
“Observant” and “picturesque” are not necessarily the foremost qualities a horror film strives for, but they’re the ones that apply to DESOLATION, in which a sensitivity to character and setting compensate somewhat for a lack of inventiveness and intensity when it comes to the fright components.
Now on VOD and in limited theatrical release as an IFC Midnight title, DESOLATION is nominally a survival-horror saga, but its true focus is on a mother and son forced to bond under stress following a trauma that has driven an emotional wedge between them. Abby (Jaimi Paige) has recently lost her husband to a fatal illness, and taken 13-year-old Sam (Toby Nichols) on a camping trip into the forest to scatter his ashes from a mountaintop. She has also brought along her longtime friend Jenn (Alyshia Ochse), for moral support and companionship, given that grief has estranged Abby and Sam. The boy is so consumed with his inner turmoil that when he notices a mysterious man billed only as The Hiker (Claude Duhamel), clad in a hoodie, dark cap and sunglasses, watching them from afar, he doesn’t initially bring it up to the women.
First-time feature director Sam Patton, who has served in assorted production capacities on several Blumhouse features, has clearly learned lessons about simplicity-is-a-virtue filmmaking, making the most of his sylvan locations (very attractively shot in upstate New York by DP Andi Obarski) and small, talented cast. The screenplay by Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas provides a number of small, meaningful moments in which we get to know and sympathize with our central trio. The performances are pleasingly naturalistic and avoid overstatement even in the big emotional scenes; Paige has an affecting moment in which Abby breaks down and admits her fears of facing a future without her husband.
Once the new man in her and Sam’s life becomes the object of dread, DESOLATION takes its turn onto the genre trail without building up much urgency or momentum. At first strolling nearby and past his potential prey, the Hiker eventually gets down to his unpleasant business, yet other than a penchant for blasting vintage music through the trees from a distance, he has no particular quirks or details to set him apart as anything other than a generic masculine threat. This casual presentation, and lack of backgrounding for the Hiker (plus a scene toward the end that ascribes significance to the removal of his sunglasses), suggest that perhaps he is meant to have allegorical connotations beyond his physical menace, though nothing really comes of this.
Patton’s straightforward, no-frills direction is more rewarding in DESOLATION’s conversational moments than in its conventional violent ones. The question of whether Abby and Sam will survive becomes less important than whether their frayed relationship can be mended if they do, and while it’s commendable that an indie terror-in-the-woods flick would address these concerns, this one does so at the expense of true scares.