Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Review: Into the Forest

Review by Alexander Cairns
There is no shortage of post-apocalyptic stories focused on brooding men who have to wrestle with a new moral and societal framework, and get to kill a bunch of dudes along the way. Examples abound across different media, from television shows and graphic novels like The Walking Dead to the various entries in the “Living Dead”, Planet of the Apes and Mad Max series. Into the Forest, on the other hand, is an atypical post-apocalyptic narrative for a number of reasons, the most prominent of them being its focus on two female characters. Director Patricia Rozema's film has little interest in the usual murder and mayhem in the other titles listed above. Instead, the circumstances of the characters’ outside world are the catalyst that reveals the fragile nature of their domestic lives.

Patricia Rozema adapted the script from Jean Hegland’s 1998 novel about a family dealing with the consequences of a world without electricity. In an unspecified small town in the Pacific Northwest, Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) enjoys a quiet life with his two daughters, Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood). Nell is studying for her SATs, and Eva is training for a prestigious dance competition. Not more than five minutes into the film, their routines are disrupted when the power goes out at their home without explanation.

After a few days spent trying to kickstart the car battery, the trio make it in to town, only to discover the grocery store has been looted, the gas stations are dry, and no one has had any communication with other communities. Is this an isolated incident, or a global catastrophic event? This is one of several questions regarding the outage the film leaves unanswered, choosing instead to focus on how a small group of people respond to the situation. In choosing to focus on the characters played by Wood and Page, Into the Forest explores many elements that are usually overlooked in an otherwise male-dominated genre.

Rozema, and presumably Hegland before her, use the ‘turned off’ environment to explore Nell and Eva’s isolation from each other and the outside world, as well as their inability to process the loss of their loved ones. The film explores the impact a lack of human contact can have on two sisters who otherwise appeared to have a healthy and productive relationship before the outage. When the technology turns off and they are left having only each other as company, the unspoken issues between Nell and Eva, and their inability to move on from the past, come boiling to the surface.

Knowing this was a Canadian production (filmed in Campbell River, British Columbia) I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the fictional post-apocalyptic situation and real society’s contemporary one. In my mind, Canada is a country that has a sizeable population and several densely populated cities but struggles to build community within these urban areas. While we have a reputation for being culturally open and welcoming, we can also be closed off and exclusionary to others. The movie’s focus on isolation and the distance between characters who share the same space felt like a new approach to the genre, and added humanity to a story that could easily devolve into violence and gore.

Furthermore, the film devotes a significant portion of its running time to the lasting effects of the sexual assault of one of the main characters. Where this story device is typically used to give a male character motivation to seek revenge against a group of antagonists, Into the Forest takes it as a primary plot element, and explores the full impact of such a traumatic event. In this way, it reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which takes the impending doom of an apocalyptic event as a jumping off point to delve into a deep and complex understanding of clinical depression.

Beyond being an excellent and unique addition to the post-apocalyptic genre, Into the Forest is also a prime example of the strengths of Canadian cinematic creation. Bound by a smaller production budget and lesser-known stars, the focus turns to character development, tone, and theme, rather than action and mayhem. And the Americans have taken notice! The film was picked up for distribution by A24 in the US and will be released stateside on July 22, 2016. Elevation Pictures is handling Canadian distribution and is playing on screens across the Great White North as of June 3, 2016.

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