by Brian Orndorf, published on July 28, 2016|
“Into the Forest” takes on the survival genre from a different angle. Death and destruction are set aside to focus on the long march to doom, focusing on the plight of sisters facing the ultimate challenge in their protected lives. It’s based on a novel by Jean Hegland and the feature retains its literary approach, with writer/director Patricia Rozema preserving the “life goes on” aspects of the story, building events with the momentum of a reader burning through chapters. “Into the Forest” is particularly irksome at times, but the core viewing experience is sustained by Rozema, who handles mounting anxiety and the long apocalyptic waiting game competently, maintaining a feel for the end of the world as it visits those already off the grid.
Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) is a dance student preparing for the audition of her life. Nell (Ellen Page) is a student experience first love with Eli (Max Minghella, offering a weak Irish accent). The siblings live in a remote wooded area with their Dad (Callum Rennie), living their days in relative peace, living partially off the land. When an unexplained national event takes out the power, a simple wait for restoration turns into weeks and soon months of nothing, with the trio realizing that something bigger has occurred, requiring them to be careful as they try to maintain their good neighbor attitudes. For the young women, extended isolation and dwindling supplies tests them in unexpected ways, strengthening their bond as disaster begins to reach their homestead, requiring them to master a self-sustaining lifestyle to preserve routine.
Doomsday isn’t explicitly detailed in “Into the Forest,” only registering through the absence of power, which darkens Nell and Eva’s house in the middle of nowhere. There’s no overt violence to explore, just news reports commenting on a vague event that’s disrupted the electrical supply, with signs pointing to a terrorist act. However, the particulars of the nightmare are of little concern to the production, which remains in the woods with the main characters, initially depicting their comfortable lives as Nell lives to study, tentatively succumbing to Eli’s charms, while Eva develops her dance skills in a studio, working hard to achieve lofty academic dreams. The sisters lead normal lives, only to find everyday business crippled by the power outage, finding Dad emerging as a natural leader, using his survival expertise and kindliness to create a pocket of stability as supplies are harvested and the waiting game begins.
“Into the Forest” explores the restlessness of isolation, watching Eva and Nell try to carry on as though nothing has happened. They continue work, prepare meals, and keep attention on their interests, but it becomes increasingly clear that all is not well with the world -- a “fugue state” identified during a visit to the nearest town, where they meet with oily grocery store owner Stan (poor Michael Eklund, who always plays the creep), picking through meager supplies on ransacked shelves. Matters go from bad to worse for Nell and Eva, who are soon on their own, trying to keep up with the demands of survival, acquiring their education through books, with Nell particularly attentive to instructions, eventually put in charge of hunting and preparing a wild pig in the movie’s most vivid sequence. Tensions rise as the days carry on, with the sisters fighting over gas rations, and Eli pays a visit, urging Nell to join him on a long walk to possible salvation in Boston. Arrivals and challenges are episodic, but comfortably so, with Rozema building tension as time passes, observing the characters harden in different ways, generating a sense of movement to the tale that’s passably engaging, at least when events limit hysterics. A late inning incident involving sexual assault is overkill, mostly because the director lingers on the act longer than storytelling demands. The scene almost becomes exploitative.
Page and Wood are adequate in their respective roles, generating a believable sisterly relationship. Their scenes of panic and debate are interesting, and Rennie has winning moments in a brief supporting role, adding to the feature’s sense of discovery. However, the real star of “Into the Forest” is time itself, observing an arc of development that matures two sheltered women, forcing them into roles they never imagined for themselves, but take to with surprising spirit, trying to make something out of nothing. “Into the Forest” works when locked into this unique challenge to domestic stability, soaking up complex behavior.
Rating: 7 out of 10