Where has the mountain climbing thriller gone? Was it ever here? Sure there was the epic string of them in the 1930s in Germany and a 2008 adventure movie called The North Face, a couple great documentaries (Everest, Touching the Void) and an occasional action film (Cliffhanger, Vertical Limit, K2). I am even tempted to lump in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours which has the spirit of the genre, without actually having mountains. It is the nature of the beast that any filmmaking team doing this sort of movie (particularly in modern times unless you are Guy Maddin) has to be fully committed to such a thing to make it work, green screens and CGI would likely undermine things, but when done right, few genres have such built in potential for white knuckle tension. So, it is nice to see a film in this vein that takes itself deadly serious with no frills. A Lonely Place to Die is all business. Director Julian Gilbey became an avid and experienced climber to make this film, and that kind of commitment seems to have paid off mightily. Opening with three climbers half-way up a particularly rough patch of rock in Scottish highlands, the sequences were apparently shot completely in-camera, and it looks simultaneously gorgeous and precarious. The less experienced climber in the trio, the tourist boyfriend along with his much more proficient girlfriend, fiddles with his digital camera on a ledge to get just the right angle (of himself, mind you) and indirectly causes a mishap that results in a escalating bit of intense panic. Put it this way, multi-tasking has little place on a craggy face at one thousand meters. That, and your mountaineering cohorts trust you not to screw around in these sorts of circumstances. This is mere pre-amble for a lean and mean hybrid of mountaineering the Most Dangerous Game thriller shot in the same region of Scotland as Neil Marshall's Centurion, and ratcheting up the same level of pressing intensity and suspense as his USA set spelunking horror film, The Descent.
A small party of climbers have their ambitious climbing trip kiboshed by high winds. Opting for a less intense walk through the countryside, they stumble across a pipe sticking out of the ground that emits the panicked shouts of a small girl, speaking Croatian. This presents a few unsettling questions for those out for a day-hike. Who buried her? Why? And perhaps more pressingly practical, when will they be back? The road back to civilization (and cellphone towers) is many miles through the bush, but there is a short-cut involving some fairly rigorous climbing that would take them to a different town and possibly a rescue team. Back to the who question. Sean Harris, the creepy ginger-haired copper in The Red Riding Trilogy and emaciated Drexl-type thug in Harry Brown, is the who, and actually comes across as perhaps the lead in the picture. No fault to Melissa George (an actress who I've not noticed before, but is an interesting mix of Megan Fox and Maria Bello, here, to the pictures benefit, not sexualized in the least) who puts in solid, serviceable work, but lets the performance be dictated by the danger of the sheer drops, icy waters and a stalking bearded heavy. Harris transcends as the shady middleman in a kidnapping deal gone horribly wrong (if it wasn't for those meddling kids!) who chases the crew down from the mountains into a Scottish village with Beltane festival in progress that is somewhere between the blood rave in Blade and the villagers parade in The Wicker Man, all flame and sex and primal body paint. An animal mask worn by our silent bearded hunter emphasizes the confusing mix of predator and prey that concludes the film. Everything in this film is in service of making an audience tense up - the film is breathless in its pacing. Even its few moments of downtime still bear a vibe of the ominous, the looming peak, the isolation, and complete lack of safety net. This is done at the sacrifice of character development, leaving the characters to be little more than types whose mettle is tested in quick burst of decisions and consequences, but would the film work better by stalling its momentum beyond the visceral? There is a poker match at the beginning that introduces us to the two climbing couples and their guide, in light of the structure of the rest of the film, it is rather extraneous, beyond simply setting things up. I found the films desire to tell the story purely with the action and a set of obstacles going from agoraphobic to decidedly claustrophobic to be spartan and refreshing in its focus. If there is some glue holding the film together beyond the situation it is the variety of ways that trust between characters factor into the equation. Trust that a line is secure, that a group will stay on path, trust in abilities, heck even the villains rub up against each other in terms of salvaging what is left of their kidnapping scheme. In a brief conversation after the screening, Gilbey seemed to be hesitant that such a thing was on his brain when he co-wrote the picture with his brother, but happy accident or no, it permeates every frame of the picture.
Winning the Jury award at ActionFest for both best film and best director, A Lonely Place to Die shows that the title is as accurate in describing someone trapped alone in the open with nobody to help and sniper scoping out your back, buried in a coffin with only a bottle of water and an air-pipe, or lost in a crowded town of strangers. It appears equally unsafe for the kidnappers, and their precarious situation, as it is the hunted, layering the picture in spite of its streamlined approach: There is always a bigger fish in the sea, trust me.