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“BACKTRACK” (Tribeca Movie Review)

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Celebrated in recent years for its oft-outrageous excesses, Australian genre fare has also taken a turn for the more personal and thoughtful lately, with THE BABADOOK and now Michael Petroni’s accomplished ghost story BACKTRACK.

World-premiering at the current Tribeca Film Festival, BACKTRACK is Petroni’s second time helming a feature in the midst of a screenwriting career that has included everything from one of the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movies to THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS and Hollywood horrors like THE RITE and QUEEN OF THE DAMNED. Though there are CGI spirits and setpieces scattered about this movie, the overall vibe is a more traditional, old-fashioned Gothic centered on Peter Bower (Adrien Brody), a psychotherapist in an unnamed city who’s got problems of his own. He and his wife (Jenni Baird) still haven’t gotten over the death of their young daughter a year before—an event for which Peter blames his own distraction at a crucial moment.

Having started to get back into practice, Peter is unnerved when one patient proves to be a mysterious girl (Chloe Bayliss, resembling a young Jennifer Jason Leigh) who doesn’t say much before vanishing into the night. It’s not hard to guess what her presence actually means, and to the movie’s credit, Peter’s mentor Duncan (Sam Neill) soon points out the obvious: she’s a specter of Peter’s deceased child. But is the shrink going crazy himself and seeing things, or is he actually being haunted? The search for answers takes him back to the rural town where he grew up, pointedly named False Creek, and a confrontation with pieces of his past he’d rather leave behind—including his estranged father William (George Shevtsov), a former cop whose only battle now is with the bottle.

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Shevtsov, who was terrific in the little-seen-in-the-States Aussie drama LOVE SERENADE and is remarkably well-matched in resemblance to Brody, leads a solid ensemble of Down Under talent in the supporting roles. In addition to Neill (who figures into a nice little reveal moment) and a brief appearance by THE ROAD WARRIOR’s Bruce Spence, BACKTRACK marks a welcome return to the genre for Robin McLeavy, who memorably cut loose as deranged high-schooler Lola in THE LOVED ONES. She doesn’t get to go similarly crazy here, but fits comfortably and confidently into the much more mature role of local policewoman Henning. Peter at first visits her as a way of assuaging guilt over a past wrong, though she’ll also become a necessary presence when things start getting more immediately dangerous.

The redressing of old grievances, the unveiling of buried secrets and the phantasmic threat giving way to that of human villainy are all tried-and-true ingredients in BACKTRACK, pulled off with panache by Petroni and his cast. Sporting a very convincing Australian accent, Brody is equally persuasive in conveying Peter’s torment, and his determination to set things right for the living and the dead. Shevtsov also does fine work expressing his own role’s inner pain, and Peter and William’s fraught, very human relationship offers a balance to the supernatural maze of Petroni’s narrative. While the details are occasionally suspect (a correspondence between the names of train stations and certain characters is a whopper of a coincidence) or reminiscent of other movies to the point of breaking the fourth wall (one ghost seems to have taken elocution lessons from JU-ON/THE GRUDGE’s Kayako), the writer/director transcends the familiarity of the basic ingredients by getting us sufficiently involved with the characters’ specific scenarios, and by keeping the twists and revelations coming at the right pace, paying off on connections hinted at throughout the first half.

He has also marshaled a strong array of craftspeople to give BACKTRACK the right look and sound. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio, composer Dale Cornelius and others on the team are new hands at horror, yet their work evokes an accomplished eerie mood that, for the most part, doesn’t strain for effect. There are the expected jump-scares—a couple of which do pack the intended jolts—which serve as punctuation in a story more concerned with building a steady tension that grabs you and holds you for the entirety of its running time.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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