Adrien Brody walks around with his best spooked-out face in the moody Australian thriller Backtrack, sizing up every moment as if it were tailor-made to haunt or depress him. The Oscar-winning import seems to be in the constant process of fighting off horrifyingly grim visions: a hallucination of a dead grandmother crawling up his legs with a steak knife between her teeth, for example, or a renewed season of You’re Back in the Room.
Moments of slightly more nuanced acting occur from time to time, generally involving worried looks that press both sides of Brody’s forehead together, creating a sadness-enclave where the film’s quieter moments are expressed. The bloke also sports a pretty bloody good Australian accent, more the metropolitan latte-sipping type than the Dundee-esque outdoorsman.
Writer/director Michael Petroni has the know-how to film Brody commuting via Melbourne’s old, banged-up, rusty-looking, portable sauna tin-can trains; none of those sleek plastic-looking ones. Largely thanks to cinematographer Stefan Duscio, Backtrack has a classy, downcast aesthetic that feels a bit like an old piece of furniture melted down and turned into celluloid, or a film infused with the fabric of a chesterfield.
Brody plays Peter Bower, a crestfallen psychologist who has recently returned from Sydney to Melbourne with his wife Carol (Jenni Baird) following unspecified traumatic experiences. One of his clients is Felix (Bruce Spence), a haunted looking fellow – hardly the only one in this film – who believes the current president of the United States is Ronald Reagan. And the year, 1987.
It doesn’t take Peter long to arrive at a prognosis of amnesia, but his other clients also grapple with highly unusual issues. Each are a little freaky in their own way, particularly an eerie young girl who arrives in a duffle coat with a hood, looking like Paddington bear crossed with the kid from The Exorcist.
Petroni understands that putting a freaky looking child on a swing late at night, and filming out a window from the side in an unbroken shot, the kid swinging out of frame then the swing returning minus the kid … well, that’s always going to be creepy. Backtrack is littered with similarly short but macabre flourishes: nothing particularly new or innovative, but the cumulative effect is unquestionably eerie.
All the tormented doctor’s clients share something important in common. But before you can say “M Night Shyamalan” Petroni has more or less moved on, setting in motion a cat-and-mouse game between film and viewer, Backtrack remaining a skip ahead most of the time. Those well-schooled in the scary movie curriculum will pre-empt some revelations, but there’s always more where that came from.
Having determined that 1987 is a significant year, Peter sets about investigating why. In his suspiciously titled hometown, False Creek, he tracks down an old, pint-wielding, drowning-my-sorrows-style mate (Malcolm Kennard). He is less than keen to talk things over, espousing the old “we agreed not to ever discuss that again” chestnut.
Hanging around all of this, never quite owning a place in the storyline but giving his darndest to make an impact, is Sam Neil as fellow psychotherapist Duncan Stewart. He’s a shrink-for-the-shrink mentor style character who says caring, even sage-sounding lines such as “it’s not easy, facing things” and “say her name, Peter”.
Backtrack is a solid atmospheric work from the get-go, with a drip-drip-drip ambience that suggests the sort of universe where it’s always raining and/or always night-time. Over-indulging in scary movie tropes, Petroni at least keeps packing them on, in a thoughtful story hinged on something horror can be very good at illustrating, as it is here: the corrosive, psyche-destroying effects of a repressed memory.
The film doesn’t always come together but it casts a certain shuddersome spell. For what it’s worth Backtrack also has one of the best pushing-somebody-out-of-the-way-of-a-moving-train sequences in some time. If none of that appeals, at least there’s Adrien Brody. That slender, waspish physique and whippit-like face was simply made for a scarf, and feels totally at home on the streets of Melbourne.