The setting is vast but the tension is tight in British director Julian Gilbey's "A Lonely Place To Die," a first-rate outdoors suspense yarn about a couple of mountaineers facing off against cold-blooded killers. Gilbey's fourth feature, written with his brother Will, has a frantic pace set against the minimalist environment of the great outdoors, giving the impression of a constricted take on "Cliffhanger."
At its best, Gilbey's enjoyably fast-paced excursion harkens back to the character-driven American action vehicles of the late '80s and early '90s, including "Cliffhanger" and "Die Hard." At times, it even outdoes those movies with the skillful execution of its speediest moments. It only loses traction when it slows down long enough to become predictable.
The story revolves around five athletic pals on vacation in an isolated region of Scottish Highlands. During a hike, they come across a young schoolgirl named Anna (Holly Boyd) trapped beneath the ground. Having freed her, they discover the Serbian captive speaks no English. When a pair of gun-toting kidnappers come out of the woodwork to prevent the theft of their young human prize, it kickstarts a survival story that, at least initially, promises not to quit. As bullets fly and ropes are cut, no fate is certain.
It's not just the title that creates the lingering feeling of dread. Impressively cinematic from its first shot, "A Lonely Place to Die" begins with spectacular images of the vast, empty mountain plains, ensuring the characters' isolation and the long drops they face while scaling the rocky terrain. These sprawling images meet an effective contrast in POV shots of feet dangling inches above the rocks, the distant ground barely visible below. Casual dialogue before the danger strikes establishes the stakes: As one adventurer explains, a tumble along the north side of the mountain means 30 seconds of free fall.
Appropriately, the toughest of the bunch, Alison (Melissa George) endures the harshest environmental challenges while the rest of her colleagues gradually drop out of the picture. Hurtling across angular landscapes without the aid of a harness, careening down a waterfall and speeding through the trees, she emerges as Anna's fearless protector. Alison's hardened survival skills render moot the question of why she puts so much effort into saving the young girl instead of simply heading to safety. She does it because it's fun to watch her pull it off.
The movie sustains its energy for the duration of the outdoor scenes with clever angles and well-timed edits that accentuate the rapid pace. When Alison and her remaining friends sprint across the empty woods, the restless camera chases them alongside, sometimes spinning out of control. "A Lonely Place to Die" sets itself apart from the chaotic montage style of contemporary action blockbusters for the sheer physicality of its direction. While bodies fall hard and fast, Alison never sits still. However, when "A Lonely Place to Die" broadens its plot to include a group of militant rescuers intent on tracking down the missing girl, it busies up a narrative that benefited from simplicity.
That makes the final act particularly troublesome. Gilbey maintains genuine fear with his stripped-down environment and the resulting lack of safety associated with it. The mountains contain more cliffs than solid ground. But once the final act shifts to a more populated area for the climactic battle, it sets the stage for a lesser movie we've all seen before.
That's particularly unfortunate given the swift maneuvers leading up to the final cop out. "Complacence is a killer out here," someone says about the mountain range and "A Lonely Place to Die" takes that advice so long as it avoids clichés. Then it curiously embraces them, running into the only wall that its fierce heroine can't traverse: Mundanity.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "A Lonely Place to Die" swept the awards at North Carolina's ActionFest earlier this year and was picked up for distribution by IFC Films ahead of its premiere at Fantastic Fest, where it won an acting award. Despite this enthusiasm, the lack of star power and low budget mean that it will almost certainly do most of its business on VOD.