Movie Review: “Backtrack”

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A recent piece by the numbers-crunching pundit site fivethirtyeight.com tried to come to grips with which actor has had the worst career, after winning an Oscar.

And while you can quibble with the methodology and conclusions that the website conjured up, you know in your gut that two names are going to be high on that list — Nicolas Cage and Adrien Brody.

Cage has, on a couple of occasions, told me about the therapeutic escape work offers him, and that this has more to do with his mania for making Z-movies, one right after the other, than finances.

Brody? After winning the Oscar for “The Pianist” and giving Halle Berry a smooch for the ages and then delivering one of the most heartfelt and touching acceptance speeches in Oscar history, he’s seemed hellbent on avoiding great success. Viewed from another angle, he’s defiantly gone his own way, rarely grabbing roles in potential blockbusters (“King Kong”), choosing to work instead with directors he admires (“Midnight in Paris”, “The Darjeeling Limited”), on no-budget films that challenge him (“The Jacket,” “The Experiment”) or just seem “cool” (“Splice,””Cadillac Records,””Hollywoodland’).

Thus, “Backtrack.” A ghost story set and shot in Australia, if he took it for the challenge — he almost of blows it. The performance is passable, but the Australian accent his troubled psychotherapist should, by rights, have, only pops up in the last scenes.

But if he was angling for “cool,” this sometimes hair-tingling thriller fills the bill. It’s a stylish riff on the man-haunted-by-his-past (literally) that makes for a pretty good ride.

Pete (Brody) spends his days in an office too-jarringly close to the elevated train tracks for anybody in his line of work — seeing patients, many of them with frazzled nerves and grim prognoses.

But Pete is a bit of a patient himself. His wife,Carol  (Jenni Baird) is a weeping wreck. And Pete wanders the dimly lit streets in a permanent funk, one his mentor/shrink (Sam Neill) tries to cure him of. Pete and Carol lost their daughter.

A silent teenager (Chloe Bayliss) in a hoodie who appears, and disappears, in his office, and a brittle, grief stricken mother (Anna Lise Phillips) who pops up on his couch or on his train rides seems to be pushing his buttons.

“I must be hallucinating the whole thing.”

Indeed. He can’t prove their existence to his mentor or himself. But the talking cure and dream analysis suggest a source. And the ghosts he thinks he’s seeing make him backtrack through his past.

Screenwriter (“The Book Thief”) turned writer-director Michael Petroni delivers plenty of surprises in the film’s 90 brooding minutes. Just when Pete and we are reassured that we’ve figured him and his past out, new twists arrive. The effects in “Backtrack” are judiciously applied — human faces turning into corpses, things of that sort — and genuinely hair-raising.

Neill is quietly compelling, as always. Brody underplays Pete, emphasizing his suffering, his victimhood, his guilt. It’s a performance mostly of reactions, and the aforementioned wayward accent.

But watching him, he makes us understand why he chose this project, how his choosing it helped a pretty good film get made and that there are different ways for a screen actor to measure personal success, even if they aren’t measuring by the numbers nerds at fivethirtyeight.

2half-star6

 

MPAA Rating: R for violence, disturbing images and language

Cast: Adrien Brody, Sam Neill, Chloe Bayliss, Jenni Baird, Bruce Spence
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Petroni. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:30

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