Monday, October 10, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Backtrack

Michael Petroni’s ‘Backtrack’ goes through several tonal shifts before reaching its conclusion. It starts out almost as a re-imagining of his earlier ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’, in which a psychologist grapples with guilt, memory and the possibility of redemption. It then becomes a sort of inverted ‘Sixth Sense’ where the shrink is alive but his patients are dead (this revelation comes early enough in the game that I don’t consider mentioning it a spoiler). Throughout its first half, it’s a study in bereavement and coping mechanisms. Throughout its second, a study in regret. It throws in a generous helping of J-horror-style vengeful ghosts. Then the final act lurches into thriller territory.

By rights, ‘Backtrack’ should be a big old mess, and it certainly makes some narrative choices in the last half hour that are, how shall we say, shopworn. But it benefits from a cluster of solid performances, a script that’s smart enough to keep the human elements foregrounded, and focused but unshowy direction. That there are at least four simply staged but very effective scare scenes is also a boon.

Our protagonist – let’s not use the word hero – is Peter Bower (Adrian Brodie). He’s grieving for the daughter he lost in a traffic accident, blaming himself for not keeping an eye on her stringently enough, trying to retain a professional detachment as regards his patients while undergoing therapy himself with mentor Duncan Stewart (Sam Neill), and losing the ability to communicate with his wife Carol (Jenni Baird) as she stubbornly isolates herself from the world around her.

Petroni establishes all of this in a series of slow burn scenes that allow the viewer to fill in some of the lacunae. But not all of them. Some lacunae are the subject of a multi-layered series of reveals as the film progresses and the waters get muddied as regards what Peter thinks he knows. Beyond the first big genre beat – shrink realises all his patients are ghosts – the plot is best kept under wraps. Let’s just say that Peter is compelled to visit his old home town where he renews an old acquaintance (much to said acquaintance’s displeasure), causes his father (George Shevtsov) no end of worry, and prompts idealistic young police officer Barbara Henning (Robin McLeavy) to begin her own off-the-books investigation.

Although the pace increases with each supernatural occurrence, and the stakes rise with every new bit of information (or rather suppressed memory) that Peter uncovers, Petroni never rushes things. For a feature of just 86 minutes, with so many narrative beats and character nuances jostling for space, it never feels rushed. Some of the tonal shifts are awkward, though, and one or two “borrowings” from other, better films (in particular the “do you have a valediction” scenes from ‘L.A. Confidential’) left me feeling that the script would have benefited from another draft or two. Maybe it’s these problems that account for its low-to-middling IMDb, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores. Far be it from me to argue with the critical consensus (he said, trying to keep a straight face), but I found in ‘Backtrack’ more to engage with than to censure

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