Backtrack (2015) Film Review from the 14th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie written & directed by Michael Petroni, starring Adrien Brody, Sam Neill, Robin McLeavy, Chloe Bayliss, George Shevtsov, Anna Lise Phillips, Olga Miller, Jenni Baird, Bruce Spence, Matthew Sunderland, Malcolm Kennard, Jesse Hyde, Alexander McGuire, and Emma O’Farrell.
When it became clear that haunting memories of his deceased daughter, Evie (Emma O’Farrell), had followed him & his wife, Carol (Jenni Baird), to his new home & psychiatric practice, Peter Bower (Adrien Brody) opened up to his sponsor-like colleague, Duncan (Sam Neill) – even as his stress began to affect his interaction with patients. Evie’s loss, however, had manifested in a way that Peter was not equipped to handle, and Duncan could only assist with by means of one terrifying truth.
Serving as the catalyst, that would allow Peter to eventually accept that truth, was the particularly disturbed (and mutely disturbing) new patient, Elizabeth Valentine (Chloe Bayliss), as the token ‘creepy kid.’ Anyone who fancies themselves savvy, in the audience, would likely jump on what the big twist of the film would be, around that point. Save yourself the trouble. The truth Peter needed to accept was not the subject of the film; but a necessary first step, towards a much more personal, much longer denied truth. Lives & after-lives, alike, were depending on it. Backtrack was a ghost story, you see.
Adrien Brody was well within his comfort zone, in this role, and whatever reservations I had about his accent, I attributed to the universally gravelly tone, that his voice has evolved into. The fact that Chloe Bayliss, in her hooded outfit, reminded me of a cross between Anna Paquin‘s Rogue, and a Sith Lord, says more about my psyche, than it does her performance (which I liked). I will always remember Sam Neill as Damien Thorn, from the original Omen trilogy (The Final Conflict, specifically), and as Dr. Alan Grant, from the Jurassic Park series. Here, he managed to juggle the stern reassurance, of the latter role, while exuding the suspicious charm of the former.
Between the introductory backstory, and Sam Neill’s presence, I also found myself thinking back to Dead Calm. Besides the difference at the surface (a relocation, rather than a vacation), however, the two films took opposite approaches to delivering respective payoffs. Where Dead Calm relied on a slow start, and a steady build towards its climax, Backtrack opted to load its front end with enough suspense, spooks, and twist reveals, to allow gravity to take us to its conclusion.
Writer-director Michael Patroni (The Rite, The Book Thief) likely made allowance for inevitable references to The Sixth Sense; so I wouldn’t consider such a reference to be a spoiler. I think it important to note, therefore, that – as with Dead Calm – Patroni flipped the script – taking plot reveals that would otherwise constitute the “what a twist” big moments, of similar genre films, and utilizing them strictly as a setup for a mystery. That was a confidence builder.
Unfortunately, that mystery plot did not do such a setup justice. I take some personal responsibility for my disappointment, as I have a built in spoiler guy, in my head, that asks revelatory questions (“If the kid can see dead people, how do we know anyone he talks to is alive?” “If the cripple is telling the story – that begins after the ring leader was already killed – why should we believe anything he says about events, or himself?”). The mystery plot revolved around a traumatic experience, from Peter’s childhood, resulting in a psychological block. With other worldly prompting, the titular developments were to then to lead us to the true big reveal of the film; but this was where I got in my own way.
Typically, there are two primary causes to Peter’s condition: personal guilt, or denial of someone else’s. Throw in some otherwise needless flashback moments – like kids spying on couples in cars – and the climax writes itself. There were clues given, during the setup ghost story, that were also impossible to miss. Maybe it was assumed that Bruce Spence would go unnoticed; but when the tall guy, from Beyond Thunder Dome, and the opening act to Matrix: Revolutions, says something noteworthy, I take note. Likewise, too much went into the nature of Valentine’s death, during the setup, to not inform on her significance to the mystery.
Where the film got in its own way, however, was more on the execution of the climax & resolution. By the time Peter’s retired cop father, William (George Shevtsov), and active duty cop, Barbara Henning (Robin McLeavy, bringing some of her Hell on Wheels character’s mix, of vulnerability & determination, to the role), entered the plot, the gravity feed to the climax was entering terminal velocity. I understood this, because Carol was rendered ineffectual to the story. Someone else had to get in harm’s way – even if that meant doing convention-grade stupid things (like confronting a murder suspect without backup, or leaving notice) – to get that final momentum going. The difference between being hit over the head, by the film’s climax & resolution, seeing it coming & getting out of the way, or just having it miss by a mile, came down to just how old fashioned do you like your revenge/ redemption ghost stories to be.
I have nothing against ‘old fashioned’ anything, regarding storytelling; but the flip-side to a proven formula is predictability. I wanted a twist, to Backtrack’s ending, that belied its own old fashioned storytelling, up to that point. I wanted its by-the-numbers thrills to service an ending that was anything but old fashioned. Instead, the film kept to the script – which was fine, if you like that sort of ghost story. I got my hopes up, so I was disappointed, so that was on me.
I would still fault Backtrack, however, for putting more effort into its setup (loved the ‘Eye of HAL’ office buzzer), than its follow through. If anything, using a series of climax-grade twists, merely as a setup, does imply greater twists to come. The fact that the great reveal, and final comeuppance, did not land with an impact worthy of the pitch, on the other hand, is entirely on the film – regardless of whether it played to old fashioned audiences, or not.
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