Show writer-director Austin Smagalski’s To Die Alone to any REI regular, and they’ll tell you to avoid hiking alone. This indie gem shows us that wiser words were never spoken. The wilderness is a harsh place, and even with the best of help, sometimes things can quickly go awry. Dangerous bodies of water, scarce supplies, and faulty navigation all serve to up the ante in terms of anxiety in this taut thriller. Smagalski keeps viewers on their toes until the unexpected conclusion.
Irving (Lisa Jacqueline Starrett) is a woman with a troubled past undergoing a hike on the Pacific Coast Trail (the PCT as the cool kids call it). She’s on the trail to escape her life back home and is more than glad to avoid other hikers. Her serenity is eventually interrupted by Ford (James Tang), an outgoing aficionado of the wilderness who also happens to be an EMT (quite a useful companion on a hike). Irving is initially reluctant to let Ford in on her journey, but eventually, she relents because of his winning personality and skill with foraging.
It turns out to be a fortuitous decision as an unexplained force attacks Irving as she swims in an idyllic lake. Her leg is seriously injured by whatever is at the bottom of the lake, and the two backpackers quickly realize that they need to seek out help — and fast — because of the accident. Their phones are dead, and neither has a compass, so this is naturally easier said than done. So begins an expedition fraught with an effective blend of haunting imagery and unapologetic realism.
“…the two backpackers quickly realize that they need to seek out help — and fast…”
To Die Alone is stunning to behold, and Smagalski and his crew do a masterful job of highlighting the conflicting duality of the forest. It has the ability to nurture and harm in equal measure. It can take your breath away with stunning vistas but also suffocate you with its pitch-black nights. Quite honestly, it’s rare to have an indie film look as impressive as this does.
As is often the case, the simplest set-up can create blistering suspense, and this would be an accurate description of what works well here. A man, a woman, and the forest (almost a character in its own right) are all that we need. For all of the overly complex narratives that filmmakers often throw our way, sometimes it’s refreshing when they just keep it simple. Much of the exposition, in addition to a staid trauma subplot, is less effective, but rarely does it serve to distract from the core tension in the picture.
The movie concludes with a somewhat surprising twist, but Smagalski drops ample clues throughout for attentive viewers. Does the misdirection ultimately work? I’m not so sure because this reviewer found the grounded, survival-based horror to be the film’s biggest selling point. Either way, To Die Alone is one trek through the woods that one won’t quickly forget. Grab your trail mix and give it a shot. This is one not to miss.
"…one trek through the woods that one won’t quickly forget..."