Psychologist Peter Bower's life is thrown into turmoil when he discovers that the patients he has been seeing are ghosts. Risking his own sanity, Peter delves into his past to uncover a terrifying secret which only he can put right.
Adrien Brody as Peter Bower
Sam Neill as Duncan Stewart
Backtrack is the latest effort from writer/director Michael Petroni, who was the screenwriter for the 2011 Anthony Hopkins picture, The Rite, as well as 2002’s Queen of the Damned. He was also the screenwriter for the Oscar-nominated The Book Thief.
Backtrack is an apt title, for it takes us back to so many other ghost stories of the past decade and a half. There were bits borrowed from The Sixth Sense and sound effects lifted directly from The Grudge / Ju-on. There’s the pre-requisite “old newspaper clippings” and the “Nancy Drew bit” (thanks as always to Kevin Tenney’s Witchboard), as well as the emotionally debilitating tragedy which opens up our lead character to the horrors of the other side. Backtrack just didn’t feel all that original.
Following the death of his young daughter, psychologist Peter Bower (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) attempts to rebuild his life with his now-distant wife Carol (Jenni Baird). They’ve moved, he’s begun to take on a few patients in his fledgling practice, and soon he begins to see ghosts. They’re all trying to tell him something – both about his deceased daughter and about his own clouded past. After confiding in a former instructor (Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill), he decides to return to his childhood home to face the demons of his past. He stays with his father and former cop, William (George Shevtsov – by the by, some brilliant look-a-like casting as Brody’s father), and retraces his steps to a night over 20 years ago where he and a childhood chum believed themselves to be responsible for a deadly train crash which killed over 40 people.
Adrien Brody is (as we all know) a very competent actor (he won an Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist), and while Backtrack offers him the chance to show off his remarkable “crying on cue” abilities, it doesn’t give him much else to do. Frankly, his performance appeared to come from the Mark Wahlberg-school of “I’m concerned. Can’t you see that I’m concerned” furrowed brow/facial expressions.
I don’t fault Brody. He does the best with what he’s given. I just found the screenplay boring, uninspired and derivative. It was slow and failed to grab me right away. The same goes for Brody’s character – Peter was not someone (despite his tough history) with whom I was immediately ready to partner with as he began his journey. That’s not a good thing.
I will say that the visual effects were pretty striking. The makeup work as well as the ghost effects were all quite impressive. And a shout-out to the train visuals – both in the flashback and in the present story. Nicely done!
A big gripe on what is a relatively small detail: Brody doesn’t use an Australian accent. The film is produced by mostly Australians, the film is shot and takes place in Australia, most of the cast (other than Brody) is Australian, so it begs the question, why didn’t he use an accent to properly fit in with his surroundings, the story and his co-actors? I bring this up not to be petty, but the devil is in the details. Little distractions such as this are a no-no, especially when your story isn’t that intriguing to begin with. Perhaps I would have overlooked this if the picture had grabbed me. It didn’t, which left me with time to pick apart what should be insignificant tidbits. And no, Peter Bower was not an American character residing in Australia. He was born and raised Down Under, and even the actor portraying Peter’s younger self (Jesse Hyde) had a pronounced Aussie accent. It’s a weird discrepancy. Rant complete.
There are some genuine “boo” moments – but as I’ve said before when discussing so many other genre films – push the typical horror buttons and you’ll get the usual reaction. But it takes a better story and more inspired direction to prolong the dread and tension, thus making all of the jumps that much more effective. Not the case here. As far as genuine creep-outs, there are a few images that may stick with you. Trains are a big motif throughout, and one passenger train runs right next to Peter’s office window. I won’t give it away, but it’s a wonderfully eerie moment which you’ll definitely see again later in the film. Heebie-jeebies!
The exciting climax and the biggie reveal are far better than they have a right to be, considering how dull the buildup in the rest of the picture is. Not shocking enough to warrant higher marks, but certainly surprising enough to elicit a few, “Didn’t necessarily see that coming.” I wish the first two acts of the film were as much fun as the third. Sadly, rather than lift the film from the doldrums, the goodness of those final reels only served to remind us how “meh” all of the stuff was that got us there.
The best part of the film? The appearance of – is that him? Could it really be him? – The Road Warrior’s Gyro Captain himself, Bruce Spence. He has a small role as one of Peter’s patients. The other actors filling in as Peter’s wards were equally fun – one of the few things that brought a smile to my face was the montage of their sessions/complaints. The eventual reveal on behalf of his patients was also a nice surprise.
Backtrack isn’t the worst thing to come along since – I don’t know, un-sliced bread? – but considering the oodles of talent behind the film, you’ll probably be expecting a little bit more. I know I was. As such, I have to offer it a solid average score. It’s technically well done, but it’s bogged down by a meandering and uninspired story, and a very average performance from Brody. Even the welcome presence of our beloved Sam Neill doesn’t do much to lift it up from the everyday.
The film is scheduled for DVD and theatrical release in late February 2016.