Back in 2007, Julian Gilbey co-wrote and directed a film entitled Rise of the Footsoldier. Boasting some execrable cockney dialogue, vast amounts of violence and an intent to glamorise football hooliganism that was as morally repugnant as it was artistically derivative, Rise of the Footsoldier sank rapidly, leaving behind it only a greasy slick of DVDs that clogged up the ‘3 for £10’ aisle for months on end. Four years later and Julian Gilbey returns with his co-writer Will Gilbey to offer us a film that is just as violent and unpleasant as Rise of the Footsoldier but which somehow manages to work. A Lonely Place to Die is a lean and misanthropic action thriller that warns middle-class thrill seekers to be careful what they wish for.
Dateline Scotland where Eagles soar over rocky mountainsides of almost unbearable beauty. As the camera swoops past outcrops and peaks, we suddenly see a series of coloured fleeces picked out against the barren greyness of the Scottish peaks. These fleeces belong to three friends on a climbing holiday. Well… I say friends but the tensions within the group are obvious from the get-go as Alison (Melissa George) scolds Ed (Ed Speleers) for his lack of focus while experienced climber Rob (Alec Newman) rolls his eyes at the couple’s bickering. A potentially fatal fall narrowly averted, the group trudge back to a nearby cottage where they meet up with another couple and spend the evening getting drunk. Unlike many films that attempt to stress the camaraderie of the protagonists, A Lonely Place To Die makes it abundantly clear that these people hate each other. They not only hate each other but they tease and antagonise each other to the point of nearly coming to blows. “I’d rather eat my own shit” harrumphs Ed when he is handed a fish-based sarnie after a morning’s hiking. This is a group that is tired, bored and spoiling for a bit of adventure. Needless to say, their wish is granted.
As the group make their way through a forest, a noise is carried to them on the wind. Is it an animal in pain? Is it a human voice? Spreading out to search, the group soon discover a pipe sticking out of the ground leading to a box that contains a young girl. Clearly, she has been buried alive… but by whom? Squabbling as they go, the group split up with the more experienced climbers taking the direct route to civilisation while the others move more slowly across country with the girl.
Forced out of comfort zone, the climbers are forced to climb fast and hard. Gilbey’s camera spins around and plays up the sense of vertigo as Alison and Ed hang on for dear life. However, after a nasty fall and an inexplicable rockslide, it soon becomes clear that the pair are not alone. Someone out there is after them.
In a slick move, Gilbey holds off introducing us to the villains of the piece, choosing instead to play up the sense of oppressive paranoia gripping both sets of climbers as they move across the brutal Scottish hillside. With the identities and motivations of the kidnappers still unclear, Gilbey introduces us first to a pair of hunters and then a carload of heavies who both seem to be involved in the kidnapping in some way. However, in the first of a series of reversals, Gilbey rapidly pulls the rug from beneath our understanding of the situation as people slowly reveal not only their true motivations but also their true character. People you would expect to be immoral speak of the need for trust while people that seem good and upstanding are revealed to be cold and calculating mercenaries.
By the time the group has made it back to civilisation, there are three different groups in play. All of them desperate and all of them ready to kill in order to get whatever they want. Here, the film transitions from paranoid thriller to all-out action as the three groups go to war in a small Scottish town in the midst of a spectacular street carnival populated by flame-wielding demons and strange naked figures. As flames belch into the sky and fireworks detonate above the village, the three groups go to war, filling the streets of the Scottish town with blood and bullets in a series of well-conceived and exquisitely directed gun-fights that easily rival the climbing set-pieces from earlier in the film.
In his book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004), the film critic David Thomson speaks of the role of Californian light in helping to establish the American film industry. Indeed, by building their studios in Los Angeles, executives were able to tap into a free natural resource that would have cost them an absolute fortune to artificially replicate. Because of the climate and because of the environment, films made in Hollywood just flat out looked better than films made elsewhere. While there is previous light to be had in the Scottish Highlands, Gilbey’s film benefits hugely from the awe-inspiring natural beauty of its mountain backdrop. From the opening frames, A Lonely Place to Die is a film that looks absolutely stunning. Even when the action moves to the town, Gilbey makes brilliant use of a Scottish Winter Fire Festival to create a bizarre world of flickering firelight and sinister figures. Add to this some beautifully devised set-pieces, some neat structural tricks, some clever use of camera filters and an absolutely flawless feel for pacing and what you have is one of the best-directed action thrillers I have seen in a long time. Based upon A Lonely Place to Die, I would put Gilbey in the same bracket as the Frenchman Fred Cavaye whose Anything for Her (2008) recently received a Hollywood remake and whose Point Blank (2010) confirmed his status as one of the best thriller directors working at the moment.
For all of its technical accomplishment, A Lonely Place to Die does suffer from a regrettable lack of interiority. Gilbey introduces us to characters and plays games with our attitudes towards them but at no point does any of this game-playing really result in anything that I would call a dramatic arc; the story is that there’s a group of climbers and a kidnapped girl and people are chasing them… there is no sub-text, there is no emotional core, there are no character arcs… there’s just lots of chasing, lots of excitement, lots of people falling off of things, getting shot and being blown up but nothing really beyond that. Were A Lonely Place to Die any less technically impressive as a piece of action cinema, this lack of dramatic interiority would be a terrible problem but with pacing this good and spectacle this well constructed, I am inclined to forgive Gilbey and Gilbey their somewhat lightweight plot, particularly as the characters are well-defined and well served for dialogue despite their lack of dramatic ‘movement’. Had maybe a scene or two been devoted to giving this film some sort of ‘message’ then I would be hailing A Lonely Place to Die as one of the best films I have seen so far this year but, because of the lack of substance, I am reduced to saying that this is one of the best thrillers I have seen this year and that is still something. A Lonely Place to Die has appeared at a couple of festivals and is slated (according to IMDb) for an autumn release, this release may be theatrical or it may be on DVD but either way, it is a film that deserves to find an audience. I would be intrigued to know what Gilbey could accomplish with a really good script behind him.