On isolation, denial, and familiar postapocalyptic ghost towns
I Think We're Alone Now Momentum Pictures
Director: Reed Morano
Screenplay: Mike Makowsky
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Elle Fanning, Paul Giamatti and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Rated R / 1 hour, 33 minutes / 2.39:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Sometimes we create bubbles for ourselves, and sometimes the world will step in and create them for us. For antisocial librarian Del (Peter Dinklage), all it took was the eradication of human life to get everyone to finally leave him alone. Extinction is a small price to pay for a little peace and quiet.
Then again, you get the sense Del did a pretty good job keeping to himself even before the world ended. One way or another, he has found himself in quite a comfort zone. He has his town - its streets, its lake, its rows of comfortable suburban houses, and most importantly, its library - all to himself. He's standoffish by nature, but this new reality he's somehow miraculously survived has made that characteristic all but moot. At least until another survivor suddenly shows up, making a grand entrance by crashing her car against a neighborhood lamppost. Suddenly his guard is back up again.
Her name is Grace (Elle Fanning), and she's the first person - well, living person - Del has seen or spoken to in ... years? Immediately, he wants her to leave. Get out of town, never come back. Then again, until her arrival he assumed - or maybe just wanted to believe - that he was the last person on Earth. Maybe he was just off by one - maybe this "Grace" was just as cosmically lucky as he was, and it'll just be the two of them roaming the planet until they expire. Regardless, he still wants her to go. He's not interested in re-populating the planet - I mean, god, anything but that - nor in having friendship or company or assistance. He's fine on his own.
Needless to say, she sticks around anyway. Grace has nowhere else to go. Del may be a bit unsociable, but he still has his manners.
Theirs is an uneasy peace, of course. Initially, anyway. They get used to each other, as isolated people thrown together by circumstance in postapocalyptic movies always do.
But back to Del, specifically. This is, after all, his town. And he's constructed a very specific daily routine. He spends most of his time at the library reading, just as he did in the old days. He goes out on his boat to catch fish. And most importantly, he picks a house to clean. He goes inside, cleans things up, disposes of the bodies inside. He's marking them off one by one. The quiet, ritualistic nature of this daily process of his creates a somber reverence for the dead, even as Del himself isn't exactly in mourning for any of them. I don't mean to imply there's any hostility on his part, or a lack of humanity, but to emphasize that his routine is not rooted in his emotional connection to his neighbors. Which makes that routine, specifically the gentle and careful way he goes about it, all the more compassionate. That it keeps him busy, keeps him on a disciplined schedule, is just an added benefit.
Director Reed Morano (The Handmaid's Tale, Meadowland) and writer Mike Makowsky thankfully don't explain too much about what actually took place. They do, however, make too many obvious moves and go in too many obvious directions. There is one house that he never cleans - never even enters - and of course we know why. We know exactly whose house it is. Whose house it must be, could only possibly be, by any basic understanding of formula. The inevitable revelation about the house, and about Del's previous life, occurs at the exact moment in the screenplay that you expect it to. Similarly, this future - the overcast, emptied-out town, this unconscious world - is handsomely filmed, yet in an exceedingly safe, familiar way. We've seen a whole of movies over the last few years that look more or less like this one. Morano has a better eye for it than most; it's just not put to particularly adventurous use in this case. With the notable exception of Del's makeshift graveyard on the outside of town, there's nothing that dares suggest what's specific about this postapocalyptic suburban wasteland compared to all the others we've witnessed in countless similarly premised movies.
The obviousness of the film's creative choices infects the characters to the point of undermining them. The performances by Dinklage and Fanning wring as much depth from thinly written roles as anyone could. But moments in the film when characters make dramatic decisions and spring into action - leaps of courage, big emotional realizations, sudden changes of heart - ring false. Everything feels prescriptive, never intuitive. That's true from the beginning, going back to Del's initial decision about Grace, which plays out with a scenario we've seen so many times as to be an unacceptable cliche: He makes her leave, she leaves, and then at the last second he has a sudden change of heart and asks her to come back. With a few conditions, of course.
Individually, moments like these are fine. Collectively they make I Think We're Alone Now seem predetermined and inflexible.
Curiously - and frustratingly - there's a very different sci-fi-ish narrative idea hiding in the back half of the movie. This idea is so significant that I seriously wonder if it was originally envisioned as a much more substantial aspect of the film. As presented, it's an add-on that provides symbolic value and a specific plot requirement, but is otherwise benign. But it's all too potent a notion to be disregarded so flippantly. The idea speaks directly to the film's preoccupation with, and documentation of, denial. Just as the dispopulated post-apocalyptic setting is a stand-in for self-imposed isolation, the film's late detour is a stand-in for not only Del's denial - of his pain, of his past, of basic human need - but denial as a social, historical, existential force. It carries unique relevance to a movie about getting over the end of the world, but Morano never finds a satisfying way to exploit it.
Undoubtedly, there's a balance to keep for such an intimate piece as I Think We're Alone Now. You could easily make the argument that you don't want much extraneous conceptual noise getting in the way of these characters, navigating these very unusual circumstances. Then again, one of the film's larger points is that Del has become all too comfortable in his accidental, if contented, exile. Maybe a bit more extraneous conceptual noise would have done him - and the movie - good.