by Manohla Dargisjuly, published on July 28, 2016 - 5:58 PM|
Set once upon a time in the apocalypse, “Into the Forest” begins and ends with the volume turned down. A lot of contemporary doomsday flicks make a lot of noise, pummeling subwoofers and eardrums with screams, gunfire and the usual big bangs. For this dystopian fantasy, the Canadian director Patricia Rozema has gone for a singularly subdued mood and soundscape, which makes certain story sense given that power outages will soon silence most of the machines. About all that remains audible is the natural world’s whirring and buzzing, mixed in with some sisterly sniping.
The sisters are Nell and Eva, played by the unconvincingly matched Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. Together with their father, Robert (Callum Keith Rennie), Nell and Eva live in an isolated Modernist lair in the Pacific Northwest (the movie was shot in British Columbia) that looks ready for its Dwell magazine spread. It’s all attractively homey, rather like a refurbished “Little House in the Big Woods,” except that Ma (Wendy Crewson) is dead when it opens. She pops up now and then in some flashbacks, but mostly functions as an idea (of love and loss) and as a useful narrative wedge.
Ms. Rozema, who also wrote the screenplay, turns out to really need that wedge. Set in the near future, the story is adapted from a novel by Jean Hegland that’s narrated by Nell, a sensitive, smart 17-year-old who’s coming of age as the world falls to pieces. In transferring the tale from page to screen, Ms. Rozema has opened the story, even as she’s thinned it in perplexing ways. The movie still favors Nell, a bookish pragmatist who’s studying for her achievement tests when the story starts. (Ms. Page looks young, but this casting is distracting.) The somewhat older Eva, meanwhile, has followed in their dancer-mother’s free-moving footsteps and is practicing for some kind of audition.
Everything changes when the lights go off — and stay off — although not nearly as dramatically as you might expect, given, you know, excitable human nature. With one catastrophic exception, Robert registers as a sensible, entirely capable soul. (Nell is very much his daughter.) He retains his remarkable composure, coming across as more quizzical than worried when, after a spell without power, he and his daughters drive past a neighbor’s abandoned home. His pacific mien even remains intact when they visit a supermarket, which, with its near-empty shelves and creepy, gun-toting clerk, looks as if it had been prepped for another season of “The Walking Dead.”
At first, this chin-up attitude — the family is keeping calm, carrying on — comes across as a nice change of genre pace. Either that or Canadians are a whole lot more chill than Americans. Whatever the case, there’s something appealing about the movie’s relative quiet, though it makes Ms. Rozema’s job increasingly difficult because she needs to fill that silence with something. To that end, she tucks in an occasional happy-and-sad-times flashback and taps some of the significant drama-goosing incidents from the novel, including one that finds Robert gone and the sisters on their own. Every so often, Ms. Rozema also folds in a beauty shot of the lushly green forest, with its dense flora and chirping, snuffling fauna.
Mostly, she does what she can with these sisters — her recast Snow White and Rose Red — with their mommy-daddy issues and efforts to stretch their provisions, a struggle that’s mirrored by Ms. Rozema’s attempt to stretch this story. Stuff happens: visitors enter and exit; Nell hunts and guts a boar; it rains and pours. Ms. Rozema tries to build tension and sustain interest by thickening the atmosphere and layering on details rather than big incidents. Yet while she creates intimacy as well as interiority by visually closing in on each sister, as with repeated images of Nell reading alone and Eva twirling away, the movie lacks urgency. The world may be burning; here, it barely simmers.