In Patricia Rozema’s quiet, sci-fi-lite thriller Into the Forest, the power goes out pretty quickly, but the film itself is electric.|
by April Wolfe, published on Tuesday, July 26, 2016 - 10 PM
Nell (Ellen Page) studies for the SAT and chats with her boyfriend on a futuristic floating computer screen, while her sister Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) twists her body into beautiful shapes in a room that’s all floor-to-ceiling mirrors and windows. The ultra-modern house they share with their father (Callum Keith Rennie) is abuzz with music and energy … until it isn’t. Nell moans that she can’t study without her technology, and Eva’s miffed that she has to practice to a metronome for her dance audition. But these turn out to be the least of their worries.
As the blackout stretches on for days, the trio remains oblivious and hopeful. They ride into town to fetch supplies and cross paths with Stan (Michael Eklund), a confrontational and creepy supply-store manager with a shotgun who ogles the girls before handing over the last few candles, gallons of gas and unmarked cans of food. Later, as their Jeep pulls away from a celebratory bonfire and Nell stares after her boyfriend Eli (Max Minghella), there’s a spirit of revelry. The girls sing a pop song a cappella that takes on a haunting tone while their father drives up to a stalled car. Something’s happening. Men are standing around. But the father’s greeted with a shotgun, and suddenly that gas canister in the backseat seems like everything, as they speed away.
The next day, the father’s swiftly removed from the story during a minimal but emotional scene. That clicking metronome meets the angry buzzing of a chainsaw and the panicked breathing of the two girls as their father says — twice — “You have each other.” Rozema’s only allowed the audience to live with this family for a thin 25 minutes, but their pain is rendered so fully — with quick, artful shots of tensed eyebrows, a bloody leg and clutching hands — that it’s like she used the playbook for Psycho’s infamous shower murder (77 different-angled shots) and applied it to grief instead.
Rozema’s writing and directing style is fiercely spare. It seems she read Jean Hegland’s novel of the same name and selected precisely the right number of details from every chapter to evoke each emotion: a glance at the gas gauge; a lingering lustful look; a shelf of untouched books; a wry comment from Nell about selling her sister. The story hums along with little time for the overwrought — these sister survivors stranded in the woods have to learn how to pick berries, chop wood, render fat, kill and dress wild hogs and care for one another. And throughout, Page and Wood as Nell and Eva are realistically loving, annoying and loyal to one another, with every hug, push and pull both sisterly and fraught with the weight of shared history.
As a year without civilization passes, Rozema frames her two leads more and more intimately, their modern dwelling dwindling to a few black-molded rooms that haven’t crumbled in disrepair, while they endure the worst the world could offer. But every moment the situation seems hopeless, there’s a flicker of light, most often simply the reassurance that no matter what happens, these two really do have each other. This isn’t torture-porn dystopia; it’s a singular, honest, heartfelt portrait of sisterly devotion at the end of the world.