'Desolation' Review: There's A New Killer In The Woods [LAFF]

A mysterious man with reflective glasses stalks a trio of isolated campers in Desolation, the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Sam Patton. When Abby (Jaimi Paige) loses her husband to sickness, she takes her 13-year-old son Sam (Toby Nichols) and her best friend Jenn (Alyshia Ochse) on a multi-day hiking trip to spread her husband's ashes at the top of a mountain. But during the trip, the group slowly realizes they're being followed by a silent man with a beard, hood, and sunglasses. Our protagonists are worried, and it turns out their fears are justified: The Hiker (Claude Duhamel) is a killer, and they're all alone in the woods with him.

Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas's script takes the time to clearly establish the relationships between its main characters from the outset, giving us enough backstory so that when the shit hits the fan, we actually care about these people. That sounds like a simple thing, but it's of paramount importance: how can we feel anything for characters we don't know? Abby is feeling numb in the wake of her husband's recent death, and she's having trouble talking to Sam, who's dealing with the loss by turning inward. We learn that Jenn has been a great friend to them in this turbulent time, and her character has hopes and dreams of her own. For the first twenty minutes or so, all seems well – and then he shows up.

We get a good sense of who our protagonists are as people, but since The Hiker is silent and his motivations are never explained, we're meant to view him as more metaphor than man. He's such a blank slate that you can essentially read him as a stand-in for whatever you want – the looming specter of the patriarchy encroaching on Abby's world, a manifestation of grief that will spell her doom unless she's able to pull herself together and move on, etc. – but that emptiness of character makes the movie feel a little shakier than it would have otherwise. The only detail we find out about The Hiker is that he likes to blare old timey music through a tape player during his kill sessions, but that eccentricity just sort of hangs there awkwardly, not adding the intended terror to the proceedings and instead coming off as a strange choice. He's clearly designed to be a horror villain in the vein of The Shape from Halloween, but he never quite manages to achieve that status of being an elemental force. He just feels like a weird guy who kills people and doesn't say anything while doing it.

Because of that blandness, Duhamel doesn't have much to do as The Hiker, so he becomes the weak link in the cast by default. Paige and Ochse, meanwhile, have excellent chemistry together and truly feel like long-time friends, while the young Toby Nichols – who, it must be said, looks uncannily like a cross between Stranger Things stars Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown – holds his own playing Sam as a frustrated, simmering collection of emotions waiting to detonate.

The film's pacing is terrific, but some of the editing comes off as sloppy, with one continuity error sticking out as especially jarring. The movie's prop game is strong, with items like a sharpened stick, a can of pepper spray, discarded wine bottles, and a personalized Swiss Army knife strategically seeded throughout the first act with the potential to be important later on. Marcus Bagala's ethereal score is punctuated by melancholic piano notes, and accentuates the characters' growing unease as the situation escalates.

I wouldn't call this a slasher movie because it has such a low body count, but it definitely shares some of that storytelling DNA. There's one graphic shot of a mutilated body that some might consider over the line, and while it initially struck me as in poor taste, the more I thought about it, the more I think that shot serves to support one of the interpretations of The Hiker I mentioned earlier (I'm trying to tiptoe around spoilers here, but I think you'll get my drift if/when you see the movie). Anyone looking for a pared down, character-driven survival story won't be disappointed with Desolation.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

Desolation poster