More than a decade after his directorial debut Till Human Voices Wake Us, writer Michael Petroni is back directing another thriller with supernatural overtones, once again involving a psychologist whose past comes back to haunt him almost literally.
A year on from the death of his daughter Evie, in an accident he might have prevented, Peter Bower is throwing himself into his work. But when a young girl called Elizabeth Valentine turns up alone at his surgery, a chain of events is set into motion which will result in the exposure of a shocking crime from Peter’s youth, one which affected him more deeply and more personally than he has cared to remember.
Taking its tonal and thematic cues from The Sixth Sense by way of The Mothman Prophecies, Petroni’s film is deceptively slight, managing to pack an awful lot in to its eighty-plus minute running time. The cool visuals and chill pace are punctuated by sporadic bursts of activity, and the scares are effectively achieved, genuinely frisson-inducing despite their occasional familiarity. Petroni’s script and direction, however, keep Backtrack surprising in a number of ways. On the one hand the screenplay dances a deft foxtrot around its audience, anticipating their expectations and rewarding them yet simultaneously subverting the clichés of the genre as it does so; Petroni also answers the questions he raises remarkably quickly, hoodwinking the audience into looking in the wrong places, while building the illusion that the film is covering a lot more ground than it really does. If the last half-hour is somewhat telegraphed it’s the journey that brings you there that’s so satisfying.
Petroni’s major achievement is in the performances he gets from his actors; it’s no secret that Adrien Brody is one of the greatest talents at work in the industry, criminally underutilised since The Pianist. Brody is just as good as he’s ever been here, and what’s pleasing is how the rest of the cast matches him, especially Robin McLeavy with whom he shares a particularly moving and mature scene, and even Sam Neill manages a subtle but major surprise in a relatively small but typically restrained role.
The supernatural element is very deliberately incorporated into the story, producing an ambiguous effect and adding an extra texture to an already layered and intelligent film; it’s likely that Backtrack will escape the attentions of both horror and mystery thriller buffs by sitting somewhere between the two genres, although its lineage as a perhaps more lurid and admittedly less substantial cousin to the likes of Lantana is clear and would make that a shame. This is no classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a quietly compelling if ultimately predictable little film.
Special Features: Interviews / Behind the Scenes / Deleted Scenes / Commentary
BACKTRACK / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MICHAEL PETRONI / SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL PETRONI / STARRING: ADRIEN BRODY, SAM NEILL, ROBIN McLEAVY, GEORGE SHEVTSOV / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW