Show, Don’t Tell
You’ve heard from farty old film critics like me that movies have an excess of excess these days. Gigantic budgets, massive explosions and special effects sequences, and runtimes that would test even the hardiest of bladders. People complain about that now. People complained about those very same things forty years ago.
Sure, I get the bellyaching, at least to a degree. You’ve sat down at a theater for a cinematic epic. You proceed to be bombarded by superheroes, hammered by blue cat people, or slammed by historical personages. And, as the dust settles and the audience staggers from the multiplex like survivors of the Dresden firebombing, you’re one of them and you think to yourself, “That…that was it? All that sturm und drang for nothing?”
Well, sometimes bigger is necessary. The Lord of the Rings, Avengers: Endgame, and King Kong use their size effectively. I’m good with that. It’s not always necessary and I’m just as good with stripped-down films, the ones that take an immense concept and make it as intimate as possible. That’s one of the main reasons I liked No One Will Save You, an alien invasion thriller that focuses almost solely on a single person.
The little world Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever) lives in is a safe one. It mostly encompasses her childhood home, a warm and rambling house next to a lake. Brynn sews and repairs clothing, a profession that demands focus and precision. She cooks, dances, sits by the lake and enjoys splendid solitude. She’s also built a model of the town she lives in. Perhaps “lives in” isn’t terribly accurate, since she only heads into town when it’s absolutely necessary.
Brynn’s little world can only keep the world out for so long. When she does go to town, she’s shunned. For the most part, she seems okay with solitude. She still mourns her mother (Lauren L. Murray). Even worse is the loss of her friendship with Maude (Dari Lynn Griffin), a loss that she feels keenly. Once, Brynn could talk to Maude about anything. Now, Brynn doesn’t talk to anyone about anything.
One night, Brynn receives a visitor. An intruder, one that’s not from around here. It’s an alien, and when it forces its way into Brynn’s home, its motives aren’t immediately clear. In fact, dealing with her seems to be fairly low on its to-do list. It’s still a threat, and before long, Brynn will have to deal with both it and the truth about her past.
In No One Will Save You, there are no exploding buildings, nor do we see gargantuan battles between heroic (mostly American) troops and fiendish thingies from beyond the stars. Director Brian Duffield is more interested in how a young woman deals with the destruction of her carefully constructed world. That’s a good decision, and it works fiendishly well in the first act. We watch Brynn dealing with the alien home invader and see her making smart and tactical decisions. Throughout the initial sequence, Duffield does outstanding work with sound design, the immediate geography of Brynn’s house, and editing that jacks the tension up to nearly unbearable levels.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the second and third acts, while pretty well done, never sustains the first act’s high-wire balancing act between suspense and characterization. That flaw feels to me like one that comes from Duffield’s screenplay. Understand that he’s a clever and thoughtful writer. However, the opening home invasion sequence is more than just a “booga-booga” chase scene. It explores the idea that the alien home invader is the first person to set foot in Brynn’s house in years. That’s a cool concept that matches themes with genre thrills nicely. Theme and genre don’t sync up again as things progress, and the truth about Brynn’s past should parallel the invasion narrative.
Duffield also makes the decision that, with the exception of nine words, there is no dialogue in his screenplay. For the most part, that choice works, considering who his protagonist is and how she lives her life. Maybe it’s kind of a gimmick, but it’s also true that people exist out there that aren’t incorrigible chatterboxes.* I thought the end result was good, but those nine words should hit a lot harder than they do.
When we get right down to it, this film has a single character. Nobody else has an arc, makes decisions, or even says words out loud. That means it’s all on Kaitlyn Dever to make this thing work, which luckily for everyone, she does! Dever has a marvelously expressive face that communicates concepts and emotions better than an overwritten monologue. She shows us terror, steely resolve, gnawing guilt, and tiny moments of happiness. She also does a nice job with running, lunging, and inflicting grievous bodily harm on a few luckless intergalactic critters. I’d be interested to see Dever in a full-on action movie one of these days.
No One Will Save You could be interested in Infinity Thingamabobs or starships hurtling to earth.** It isn’t. It cares about one woman and one set of experiences. The film doesn’t always work, but when it does and when its thrills are woven together with its themes, it hits heights that bigger blockbusters could only dream of.
*I’m looking at you, MCU.
**We’ll talk more about a director who absolutely crushes scale next week.