Synopsis: The tide delivers castaway Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) and her dying friend Brad (Benedict Samuel) onto the tropical island like a miracle. However, not all miracles are the godsends they seem to be. Jenn soon discovers that she is alone in the wilds, forced to survive in ways she never had to before. Exploration of the island then reveals evidence that other people have come here before and never left. Loneliness would have been a boon. In fact, there is a mysterious presence haunting and hunting the island, a voracious being eager to taste new foodstuffs. Jenn may well be next on the list if she cannot find a way to either sate this creature’s appetite or otherwise defend herself. She has little in the way of possessions, a few found items and the clothes she washed up on shore in. Still, survival is key in co-writer/director J.D. Dillard’s spare but chilling thriller, Sweetheart.
Personal confession time: I was never all that fascinated with the Robinson Crusoe storyline, even when I was younger and yearning to get away from the ‘burbs I grew up in. Stories about ill-prepared people struggling to survive in the wilderness were not my cuppa tea. Maybe I encountered Lord of the Flies too early, and was scarred by Piggy’s terrible death. No matter how you slice it, one person or small groups being stranded on a tropical island tends to evoke despair in me from the outset. I can see how easily they will slide into misery. Movies in this vein are more often misses for me as they are hits. Cast Away (2000) was alright, I guess. Richard Laymon’s Island left me cold. Lost (2004-2010) at least had something going on and the island they landed on was not quite deserted. A few stories I enjoy, a few I cannot stand, and many of them pass me by as “I am not this movie/book/series/whatever’s target audience.” There is no urge in me to go to nature, no desire to see if I could survive if were removed from civilization for an extended period of time.
Here comes Sweetheart, a thriller about a woman trapped in an island paradise that quickly becomes Hell. In all likelihood, I should not have liked this particular feature. However, I was rather taken with the film in the final analysis when I caught a showing during this year’s Graveyard Fest horror movie film festival here in Houston. Throw in a mysterious monster, and I can set aside my thoughts of absolute despair. Keep me on my toes with a character I can root for, and you’ve got my buy in. Director Dillard does both of these, and he does not shy away from humor even as he layers on the suspense.
Dillard is not afraid to make the sun-drenched paradise itself a sinister component in his tale. He and cinematographer Stefan Duscio are as content to weave an atmosphere of dread on moments of wind shaking the palm trees as it is to focus on a woman’s sudden startle at an impossible sound out there in the night past the campfire’s glow. The island employed in this film is a lovely enough place, and yet even during the daytime it hides its secrets pretty well. Jenn’s survival is on the line in this story from the get go, and she soon reveals herself to be a relatively capable person in ensuring it. Faced with the choice of live or die, she clings to life and even before the first nightfall, I was on edge with a giddy sense of hope and dread. Quality mood building, right there.
It is not easy to make the daylight scenes creepy. A lot of horror relies on our fear of the night, that time when we cannot see well. However, the filming of the island in the daylight during the opening sequences is rich with brooding suspense. Is something waiting for our protagonist to step just past that tree line? Is the bag hanging in that clearing bait for some kind of trap? What’s with all those little fish in the puddles; are they normal? Or what the hell was with those bumping sounds in that hollow, collapsed tree trunk?
Casting Clemons in the lead is one of Dillard’s masterstrokes. She imbues her character with complexities, sharing these with us despite a deficit of dialogue. We get to know the woman she really is before the baggage of the life she left behind arrives to remind her of the person she once was perceived as. Though it might seem spare, this is a meaty and demanding role, one which the actor takes to with aplomb. Luckily she does not have to sell a one-woman show for the entire running time. When additional survivors materialize, she has a chance to show talent with dialogue and chemistry with fellow actors, as well. Definitely an actress to watch.
The various makeup, sound and special effects are good quality, as well. Wounds look painful, mysterious fluting hunting noises are loud and impressive, there is an impressively creepy near-perfect circle waiting where no such thing should be that is haunting to behold, and the mostly unseen creature is fascinating to ponder from a biology perspective. The movie might not have the largest budget, but it uses its money wisely, giving us a monster movie that manages to be as eerie, as quirky, and as memorable as Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) or David Twohy’s Pitch Black (2000). Special shouts out to effects artists John Howard, Crater Studio, and the others involved in realizing these moments.
The on-land stuff is quality work, but the real surprises for me were the film’s few underwater sequences. Dillard manages to bring his camera under the surface for moments that are both beautifully shot and unsettling as hell. Even though they take place in crystal clear, blue waters, they manage to generate no small amount of claustrophobia. Also, they don’t cheat too much—I held my breath the way many people do when these scenes began, and I tended to last long enough to see our heroine break the surface. Nice touch there!
Sweetheart‘s script (by Dillard, Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer) is a lean one. With a brisk running time of 82 minutes, Sweetheart is a visual feast. Very little dialogue in the first hour. Only after some more survivors arrive midway through the proceedings, bringing with them certain expectations about Jenn’s reliability and grasp on the situation (all fueled by experiences with her in pre-marooned days), do we get some back and forth, give and take. These scenes are lean as well. Dillard and his collaborators imbue the sequences with menace and mystery, and Jenn’s fellow survivors are given potentially dangerous secrets as well as difficult to parse motivations. Was there another survivor with them? Why is there something that looks like dried blood on that folding knife? How did they survive all these days on a damaged raft without food?
Sweetheart excels in building dread through suggestion. Though it carries a PG-13 rating, it still managed to shake me both with the story it was telling as well as how it went about telling its particular tale. The movie trusts its audience to come along, does not offer much (if any) exposition about what happened before the island, and yet it builds to a face-off between Jenn and the mysterious creature that is as primal and satisfying as Arnold Schwarzenegger and the mysterious intergalactic hunter in Predator. Dillard’s film managed to jolt me, to make me shudder as well as to stoke my giddiness with its revelations.
That is Sweetheart‘s strength. It is not setting out to tell a gory, sexy tale of horror in the Roger Corman tradition of a carcass or bared breast every five minutes. There are enough of those sorts of films available to satisfy audiences. Not all horror and suspense pictures have to be so indulgent. Sweetheart prefers to deliver a quiet tale about a woman who is breaking out of a shell her social network imposed around her, a woman who is maturing by being removed from the society that stifled her. This is not to say it is a bloodless affair, of course. Sweetheart also happens to be a slow burn creature feature about a mysterious presence that is closing in each night, claws and jaws eager to sate themselves with her flesh and lifeblood. In the end, the film is a tense and often fascinating watch.
Sweetheart is available on demand. DVD and Blu-rays are not yet available, but this is a Blumhouse Production so they will be around eventually.
Next up, we will check out Doctor Sleep, the brand new supernatural thriller from Mike Flanagan, in theaters now.
“Movie Mondays: Sweetheart” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.