How easy is it for modern society to go up in smoke? Fiction would have you believe that zombies would do it, nuclear war would do it, disease maybe, but do we need to go that far? If we pull the plug on modern society, and just take away electricity, can we survive? If we still think it will come back any day now, will we stay sane? Into the Forest takes place in this world, where the power suddenly goes out on two sisters living a bit off the grid with their father. Even though there’s no otherworldly threat looming, with the rumours tending towards more believable ones like terrorism than aliens, it doesn’t take long for civilization to undo itself.
But Into the Forest is only tangentially interested in that, and is much more about the relationship of two sisters in near-isolation from the rest of the world. While its basic setup could have easily made for a thrilling film, Into the Forest is much more intimate. There are moments of suspense, but this is far from The Walking Dead, and while its vision of how easily the world can turn upside down (“It’s the Wild West all over again,” one character remarks) is compelling, it doesn’t dwell on the details as much as others would. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, with some neat subtle touches (mostly in how the screens look) and some awful, not-so-subtle touches, likepeople walking around without power, saying “LIGHTS ON” in vain (I guess the Clapper came back), but could just have easily taken place in the present day. If its being sold as a sci-fi apocalypse flick, moviegoers may be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the methodical character drama it actually is.
The two sisters, Nell and Eva, are played by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood respectively. The way the two play off of each other feels very natural, with the standard squabbling but also inborn protectiveness. Eva is a dancer, which lends itself to some really fantastic shot opportunities that director Rozema exploits fully; it would be excessive were they not so entrancing to watch, lending a sense of kineticism to whatever they are being cut against (Nell’s pre-apocalypse hobby of studying for the SATs is considerably less exciting to watch). The focus is entirely on the two women front and centre, with men filling the sidelines representing one-note features of masculinity: protectiveness, aggression, and hopeless naive romanticism. Notably, every speaking role outside of the two leads and faces on video screens is a man, allowing us to project the entirety of femininity onto the leads. Leaving the baggage of representing all women aside, Page and Wood deftly portray the two sisters who have to mature from reasonable-minded college-aged folks to full-fledged adults, with all the roadbumps on the way. Both characters take similar journeys in the broad strokes, but remain distinct with very believable arcs, a testament to the actors, writing, and directing.
However great the central characters are, the movie is a bit too melodramatic for its own good. The musical cues in the movie always seem to go for big and obvious, and montages of grief and misery are used more than once. Every big moment is heavily foreshadowed in ways that are clear the second the moment occurs, which is a bit distracting but also helps to process it all. But while the movie fumbles a few big moments by going over the top, it admirably doesn’t let them fade away into nothingness. The instantaneous emotional response vanishes, but leaves its mark on the characters, changing them in obvious ways when triggering topics come up, and in how they generally interact with the world after traumatic events.
The house becomes a character into itself, sometimes acting as a metaphor for the mental state of the characters (notably when pieces of it close off), sometimes representing the decaying state of society post-event. It helps that its a beautiful, charismatic lodging, which makes its transformation into something more primal a touch eerie. What the house is supposed to represent is not-so-eloquently posed to the audience over and over, and factors into a less-than-satisfying ending (more on that in the spoilers). Despite the ending going a bit off the rails, placing metaphor above narrative, Into the Forest is a brisk 100 minute character study that held my attention throughout and acts as an exceptional star vehicle for Page and Wood. It’s sci-fi doomsday backdrop gives it bones, but its spirit belongs to sisterhood.
Into the Forest (2016)
Dir. Patricia Rozema
Starring Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)
- SPOILERS: Eva’s child being male may seem arbitrary, but a big deal is made of the gender, and it does continue the trend of only having men in the film outside of Eva and Nell. What is there to read into that? I suppose it can be read as a comment that, not only can women survive on their own, but that men are incapable of even existing without them (Eli’s implied death fits here too, although that’s a stretch).
- MORE SPOILERS: In the final sequence, Nell and Eva burn down the house to go into the forest (hey, that’s the title!). While Eva justifies it briefly as covering their tracks, there really is no good reason to leave behind a pile of ash rather than a shelter that they can either use for storage even with the black mold, or a home for the next poor sap to walk by. It’s clearly meant to represent something rather than as an actual plot device; if the house represents the decay of society, is burning it down an act of finally leaving the concept of modern society behind altogether? If it represents how they have closed themselves off from the environment, does burning it show them opening up to a whole new world, finally free of the pain and loss of the past? Does it read as them finally fully reaching independence, able to get by without any support from their parents who thoroughly haunt those grounds? A bit of everything? Regardless, the fact that it really only works metaphorically rather than literally took me out of the movie at the very end, and burning it really didn’t add anything that letting it collapse wouldn’t aside from a small bit of catharsis.