Directed by Michael Petroni.
Starring Adrien Brody, Sam Neill, Robin McLeavy, Bruce Spence and Jenni Baird.
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 is the youngest performer to ever win the award for Best Actor at the Oscars, but like the Halle Berry’s and Geena Davis’s of this world, Brody struggled to capitalise on this success, appearing in mostly forgettable movies that failed to make use of his potential. You probably have some idea where I might be going with this…
An Australian supernatural mystery starring Brody sounds like it should be one of the horror highlights of the year, particularly in the wake of The Babadook’s success, but any similarities the two films share are limited solely to the genre itself. While Jennifer Kent prised exceptional performances from her two leads in a uniquely harrowing story of grief and sorrow, Backtrack clunkily borrows ideas from a number of other films, including The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes, failing to improve on them in any measurable way.
The story of Backtrack should be familiar enough for anyone with even a passing knowledge of average horror films. Sporting a fairly decent Australian accent, Brody plays a depressed psychiatrist who is inundated with visits from ghostly apparitions following the death of his daughter. To help appease the fallen spirits, Brody returns to his home town on a quest to uncover hidden secrets and set things right.
A scary mystery needs to be two things, scary and mysterious, yet unfortunately, Backtrack fails spectacularly on both accounts.
One could argue that a slow-burning mystery like Backtrack doesn’t need to scare its audiences outright, instead, creating an overall atmosphere of dread, yet director Michael Petroni seems intent on upping the fear factor with a number of incongruous jump scares that feel more out-of-place than the cheap-looking CGI scattered throughout.
Movies with a far smaller budget have constructed more effective scares by thinking outside of the box, playing with what the audience imagines that they can see, but Petroni seems content to telegraph each of his scares with poor editing and loud noises, including a bizarre ghostly sound that steals directly from the far superior Grudge franchise.
It’s telling that the most unsettling moment in the whole film features no ghosts at all, stemming from a confrontation between Peter and a non-supernatural entity from his past, but even this scene feels somewhat hollow, lacking the tension a superior director could have created.
In this case, a scriptwriter can’t even be blamed for Backtrack’s shortcomings as Petroni wrote the screenplay too, crafting a mystery that unravels far too quickly for us to be even be surprised by the occasional twist it throws our way. Running at a lean 90 minutes, Backtrack’s script lacks the finesse required to construct an effectively layered mystery. The cast try their best with the material they’re given, but the two-dimensional characters on display share painfully contrived dialogue that prevents audiences from empathising with their grief.
If the Academy Award winning Brody continues on this path, then he may need to back track to a time when his career actually meant something aside from the occasional role in a Wes Anderson film. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast don’t fare much better.
Sam Neill phones in a professor role that might as well be named Dr Exposition and Robin McLeavy, the promising star of the Aussie horror The Loved Ones, is wasted as a dull police officer who gives zero f**ks that Brody’s character may have been responsible for her mother’s death. Those who think that the Oscars snub of Carol this year was as bad as it gets should spare a thought for Brody’s grieving wife Carol (Jenni Baird), who only appears in a couple of obligatory scenes near the beginning.
We could continue to complain about Backtrack, citing the film’s many plot holes as further proof that this film should be avoided, but let’s use our time more constructively here by simply suggesting that Petroni’s work should be avoided at all cost. Queen of the Damned, The Rite, The Book Thief… time and time again, Petroni has produced deeply flawed scripts that fail to connect emotionally with audiences, yet time and time again, someone gives him the money to write more. Australian cinema may be on the rise, but Backtrack’s only contribution is to the bargain bin.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
David Opie – follow him on Twitter, add him on Facebook or email him at email@example.com