Over the years, I have found that quiet post-apocalyptic scenarios, which focus more on characters trying to survive in their new circumstances, are usually more interesting than those interested in hardware and spectacle. I'm thinking about films like “Testament” (1983), a powerful drama in which Jane Alexander played a suburban mom trying to keep her family together in the wake of a nuclear attack; “Miracle Mile” (1988), a wonderful thriller about a man who inadvertently receives a phone call claiming that a nuclear war has been launched and his city will be hit in just over an hour; and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” (2012), a quirky and sadly underrated comedy-drama about people dealing with love and loss in the last few days before an asteroid hits Earth and destroys all life. The similarly low-key Canadian import “Into the Forest” may not quite hit the heights of those examples, but this story of a pair of mismatched sisters forced to face the unthinkable is, at least for most of its running time, a strong, smart and moving end-of-the-world drama that is further bolstered by strong performances from co-stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood.
Based on a novel by Jean Hegland and set in the not-too-distant future, the film introduces us to Nell (Page) and Eva (Wood), two sisters living in a house hidden away in the woods of Northern California with their recently widowed father (Callum Keith Rennie). Although the distance from the nearest town inspires them to keep plenty of provisions on hand, the sisters are hardly the survivalist type—Nell is online all the time studying for her exams while Eva is relentlessly preparing for an upcoming dance recital. All of that changes one day when the power mysteriously goes out. At first, this seems to be just a minor annoyance, but not only does it never come back on, there is talk that the entire country—possibly even the world—is still in the dark. Although the loss of power puts a crimp in their immediate plans, Nell and Eva are in a slightly better position than others in the area—as we realize during a creepy visit to the nearby town for what provisions still remain—thanks to the resourcefulness of their father. When that lifeline is soon cruelly cut off, the two are forced to face an uncertain future in which they have to figure out how to survive on their own. They face dangers ranging from starvation to illness to inhumanity within other people.
“Into the Forest” was written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema, whose previous efforts have included the charming comedy-drama “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” and a very good adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” Instead of framing the story as an us-against-them narrative with the sisters coming together to fight off the outside dangers, Rozema is more interested in watching two people who have little in common beyond shared genetic material trying to coexist at a time when even the smallest and most seemingly innocuous things—a visit from Nell’s boyfriend (Max Minghella), watching a home movie with a generator that uses precious gasoline or a hoarded piece of candy—can have serious consequences. Instead of making Nell and Eva into instant saints, she allows them to have the moments of anger, prickliness and selfishness that any of us would most likely succumb to given the circumstances. While all of this is going on, she also creates a quiet but palpable sense of menace regarding the world outside the house, where even the slightest odd noise can be the harbinger of some potential horror from which they cannot easily escape.
Adding to the power of the story are the performances from Page and Wood. At first glance, the casting might seem to be a bit questionable—both actresses are clearly a few crucial years older than the characters they're playing and they don’t exactly look much like sisters, either. And yet, while they may not resemble siblings that much, that aspect is quickly forgotten because of how deftly they create the idea of long-standing family ties—the kind that occasionally choke as well as bind, and find themselves being both tested and strengthened under extreme circumstances. At first, the two are clearly playing to their strengths—Page is the more outwardly strong and pragmatic Nell while Wood is the dreamier and more ethereal Eva—but as the story progresses and circumstances change, they find new dimensions to the characters as well. Page brings an unexpected vulnerability to Nell without sacrificing her basic strength while Wood, in the best role she has had in quite a while, gives Eva the kind of nerve and determination one would hardly expect her to possess based on our initial glimpses of her. Callum Keith Rennie and Max Minghella are also good in their smaller roles, and there is another memorable supporting turn from Michael Eklund as a local who figures in the film’s most harrowing moment, one that Rozema thankfully does not milk for cheap thrills or empty heroics.
The one major problem with “Into the Forest,” the one that keeps it from making that final leap of good movie to a potentially great one, is that the final third is just not quite as strong as the stuff that precedes it. Rozema doesn’t seem to have as sturdy of a grip on this section, and while the ingredients are certainly there for a satisfying conclusion, they just don’t quite come together in an entirely satisfying manner. (Of course, one could argue that by giving viewers an uncertain conclusion, Rozema is attempting to put viewers in the footsteps of her protagonists.) That problem aside, “Into the Forest” is an undeniably interesting, oftentimes affecting and, yes, unapologetically feminist take on the post-apocalyptic narrative. Unfortunately, by coming out in the middle of the summer opposite blockbuster banalities like “Jason Bourne,” there is a good chance it will come and go from theaters. But find a way to see "Into the Forest," for it is the kind of film that will not only stick with you, it will even make you think.
Based on the debut novel of the same name by Jean Hegland, Into the Forest wedges immature feminism into its lush post-technological dystopia. Set on the vivid boundary between a cabin on the edge of town and some untouched woods, technology just a bit more advanced than ours flourishes then fails as mass power outages afflict the U.S. — and the cabin’s family.
The familial characters, consisting of a father (Callum Keith Rennie, lovably dorky) and two sisters (a great Ellen Page and a not-great Evan Rachel Wood) are briefly established before the world changes, having not-so-subtle conversations about their single character traits and setting up the inklings of a brief romance between Page and a non-descript bro played by Max Minghella. Eventually, it’s conveyed that the power is not coming back and the film slowly becomes The Walking Dead sans dead. The sisters must forage the foliage and tend their surprisingly well-stocked home in a strange survivalist scenario that doesn’t ask its characters to adapt, but benevolently bestows chance and coincidence at key intervals to keep the audience awake.
There are good ideas here, interesting ideas, but their execution comes stilted, sloppy and slow. The film clocks in at 101 minutes but feels like a three-hour epic, slogging through the mundanity without communicating more than the basics about the leads. Wood plays a dancer who reiterates her close relationship with a deceased mother while Page is bookish. That’s all we get. For a feminist attempt to show two women leaning on each other, Into the Forest barely sketches them out. The faint scent of an idea lingers, and the concept of a post-tech society emphasizing the retention of what its inhabitants had before (either dance or the simple pursuit of knowledge) has potential, but like an idea-scented candle, it fails to deliver more than longings for the real thing.
This superficiality comes riddled with subtext, as writer/director Patricia Rozema tints the sisterly relationship as oddly romantic, each scene threatening to collapse into incest. One may not see sisters. Whether this is an intentional choice or not by Rozema, the narrative’s emphasis on their relationship never clicks and ends with dissonant weirdness that could be read as admirably radical if it was written better. A failure if intentional and poor direction if not.
Like the worst episodes of a drama like Game of Thrones, or indeed The Walking Dead, things just happen to characters in this story. Causes beget no effects and conversations have no impact. Subplots and themes crop up only to slide off the boring core like rain off a beige umbrella. A quasi-mystical stump cave has the sort of backyard fantasy about it that could host an entire coming-of-age drama, yet it comes off as a weirdly contrived piece of nonsense in this otherwise realistic world.
A dystopic world isn’t hard to make, but it is hard to make believable. Into the Forest crafts a suitably vague and plausible incitement for society’s collapse, then wanders around looking for something to say. With uninteresting characters whose poor choices seem based in dramatic necessity rather than personal failings and hapless attempts at mature drama (including a childishly telegraphed rape with brutality that feels like an afterthought to the film), there’s no reason to watch this rather than one of the other entries into the post-apocalypse.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.
Categories: 2016 Film Reviews, Featured, Film Reviews, Jacob Oller, Staff Writers
Tagged as: 530, 531, Callum Keith Rennie, Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Into the Forest, Jean Hegland, Max Minghella, Patricia Rozema, Review, The Chicago Critics Film Festival, The Walking Dead