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Backtrack

D: Michael Petroni / 90m

Cast: Adrien Brody, George Shevtsov, Robin McLeavy, Sam Neill, Malcolm Kennard, Jenni Baird, Chloe Bayliss, Emma O’Farrell, Bruce Spence, Anna Lise Phillips

Psychotherapist Peter Bowers (Brody) has his own problems. His daughter has recently been killed in a road accident, and his career is being propped up thanks to the help of his mentor, Duncan Stewart (Neill). He seems to be managing his grief but is prone to moping about with a withdrawn, brooding demeanour that his wife (Baird) prefers to sleep through rather than engage with. As Bowers gets back into the routine of seeing patients, some of their eccentricities – one, a musician (Spence), swears he performed the night before at a club that closed down long ago – begin to worry him. He can’t put his finger on what’s bothering him, and a new patient, a young girl, Elizabeth Valentine (Bayliss), who won’t speak, adds further to his sense that something isn’t quite right.

When the mystery surrounding his patients deepens, Bowers does some detective work and discovers they all have something in common, something that sends him back to his hometown of False Creek and an event that happened twenty years before. As he starts to piece together the facts of what happened when he was a boy, Bowers attempts to reconnect with his father, William (Shevtsov), while also piquing the interest of local police officer, Barbara Henning (McLeavy). And when Bowers thinks he’s got to the bottom of it all, he’s unprepared for yet another revelation that puts his life in danger.

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The above synopsis is deliberately vague because it would be unfair to divulge the movie’s central conceit (though there are plenty of websites that will tell you if you absolutely have to know in advance what it is). The movie itself reveals this “twist” around the half hour mark, and once it does, the movie transforms from awkwardly staged psychodrama with supernatural overtones to mystery thriller with supernatural overtones. It’s not an entirely comfortable switch, and there are more than enough clues to suggest that the movie’s narrative is a combination of two separate story ideas that weren’t strong enough on their own.

However, the switch is also welcome, as writer/director Michael Petroni isn’t as sure-footed exploring Bowers’ grief over the loss of his daughter as he is with letting Bowers loose to solve a twenty-year mystery that nobody – including him – knew was a mystery in the first place. Before Bowers arrives at False Creek, Petroni has him questioning his own sanity, but in such a crude, rudimentary way that his behaviour has all the hallmarks of having been created by someone who’s heard that grief-stricken fathers all behave in the same way. Adrien Brody is a very, very talented actor (and Petroni has been lucky to nab him), but even he can’t do anything with a character who alternates between emotionally devastated and psychologically damaged, and does so without any consistency of reasoning.

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But once Bowers is deposited in the rural backwater that serves as his birthplace and the location of a twenty year old tragedy, Brody is freed from all that brooding and is free to loosen up in his portrayal. Unfortunately, the mystery he’s required to solve is one that will have viewers scratching their heads and wondering if they’re missing something. Coincidence is piled atop coincidence with increasing disregard for credibility, and Brody visits the scene of the tragedy so many times it becomes embarrassing as he remembers “everything”. In between times he argues with his father, arouses the suspicions of Officer Henning, and manages to remember – thanks to some ghostly visitations – that he should still be grieving. His actions appear more selfish and cathartic than altruistic, and even when the scope of the tragedy is revealed (and the mystery that goes with it), Bowers ensures that it’s all still about him.

There’s the germ of a good idea for a movie here, but under Petroni’s watch it’s not allowed to develop fully. The script repeatedly makes leaps of faith that are either baffling or absurd, Neill’s character should have all the answers but disappears too quickly, Officer Henning’s connection to the tragedy is handled as awkwardly as Bowers initial malaise, and a secondary character’s fate is decided on entirely so that one particular clue can be introduced and drive the movie forward. But by this time, most viewers will be beginning to wonder just how silly it can all get; the last ten minutes will reassure them: very.

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Backtrack is a movie with a handful of competent performances, but they’re not allowed to flourish thanks to the vagaries of Petroni’s script, and it’s insistence on being two parts obvious thriller and one part supernatural mishmash. Brody must be wondering what’s happened to his career (The Grand Budapest Hotel seems like such a long time ago now), while Shevtsov and McLeavy are reduced to playing pawns at the mercy of the script and Petroni’s wayward sense of direction (in both senses of the phrase), while Neill is lucky enough to escape with a minor role.

And for a movie shot entirely in Australia, this may be one of the few occasions where an Australian movie looks so nondescript. The early scenes in Melbourne could have been filmed in any large city in any number of countries, and the town of False Creek wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in America’s Deep South. DoP Stefan Duscio did some great work on his last feature, The Mule (2014), but here it’s as if he’s been instructed to make everything look bland and/or neutral. With so little to engage with on an emotional level, it’s one last disappointment to have a movie that’s so insipid to look at as well.

Rating: 4/10 – Petroni asks too much of both his cast and the audience in telling such a dreary tale, with the result that Backtrack is a movie that never really gets started; it doesn’t help that it gets sillier and sillier as it progresses, until by the end whatever positives it possessed at the start have been abandoned in favour of a generic thriller outcome that is as tedious as it is absurdly set up.

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