The youngest man to ever win the Oscar for Best Actor was Adrien Brody, who at the tender age of twenty-nine won it for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and gave what is quite possibly the best acceptance speech in the history of the Academy Awards. Since then he’s had an interesting trajectory, going from big budget Hollywood with bit parts in the likes of King Kong and Predators to small scale genre pictures like Splice.
His latest film brings him to our hallowed shores with Backtrack, a psychological/supernatural horror set in both Melbourne and rural NSW which is notable for the being the latest directing feature of writer/director Michael Petroni, breaking a twelve year directing hiatus.
Brody plays Peter Bowers, a Melbourne based psychotherapist who is struggling to overcome the death of his daughter and has started to get some very strange visitors to his clinic. One of his patients is a man who thinks it’s 1987, one particularly pale woman is suicidal, but none come close to Elizabeth (Chloe Bayliss), a twelve year old girl dressed in a hooded black coat who can’t talk outside a strangled gasp and seems to appear and disappear with alarming regularity. As terrifying nightmares and strange encounters stack on top of each other, Peter is forced back to his hometown to try and make amends for an incident twenty years in the past. What he discovers is worse than he ever could have imagined.
Let’s get one thing out of the way that deserves a shout-out: Brody’s accent is perfect. The Aussie accent is apparently one of the hardest for foreign actors to get right with is horribly nasal vowels and our habit of putting letters where they’re not supposed to be (for example er turning into a – like pronouncing ‘water’ as ‘wart-a’). For a crash course in this going terribly wrong see Pacific Rim or, lest we forget, Tarantino in that scene from Django Unchained. But Brody has it down perfectly; all credit to him that he’s able to get all the subtleties woven into the dialogue without ever slipping into caricature or having his native Queens accent slip through.
The story, written by director Michael Petroni, has all the hallmarks of a regular horror film. It clearly takes influence from other horror films like The Sixth Sense and in terms of structure is remarkably similar to Petroni’s last film Till Human Voices Wake Us (a psychologist from Melbourne returning to his rural home town to see his father and make amends with a ghost from his past). While Backtrack starts off shakily, relying on jump scares and some very on-the-nose exposition, at about the half-way mark when the story begins playing its cards it becomes very engrossing indeed. Not knowing where the story of a horror film is going is a rare treat, especially when enough work has gone into making you care about the characters.
Brody is, as per usual, excellent. Peter has the haunted look of something who is trying to make sense of things that simply don’t make any sense, especially as someone trying to come to terms with the death of his daughter – something you simply don’t ever get over. The supporting cast are all in top form; Sam Neill as Peter’s mentor is effecting and Robin McLeavy is perfect as the local policewoman.
The highlight of the whole piece is the photography by local cinematographer Stefan Duscio. The perpetually raining streets of Melbourne are dank and depressing in that way that only a Melbourne winter can conjure, and Peter’s fictional home town of False Creek (filmed around Oberon and Carcoar in rural NSW) with its dry bush and red dirt is captured beautifully.
Backtrack isn’t original – this is true of nearly every horror film – but it’s lovely to see an Australian film that accomplishes everything it sets out to do. A few genuinely scary moments and a story with enough thematic depth to stay with you is enough to make this worthwhile viewing.
Backtrack is in cinemas for a limited time between 16th-22nd June through Madman Films.