Fate has blessed Adrien Brody with a face fine-tuned to suffering. And suffer he does, in Michael Petroni’s Backtrack. Playing Sydney-based psychiatrist Peter Bower, he battles psychological breakdown after a moment’s inattention led to the death of his young daughter. He walks empty city streets, rarely sees daylight, cues lashing rain, and attracts an entire practice of ghosts who really don’t like him very much at all.
All this is a prelude to the rest of the movie — which opens in select US theaters and on VOD on Friday 26 February — as Peter confronts the burdens of his own childhood. He does so within a structure that draws obviously from Gothic conventions, from repressed family secrets to evil masquerading as innocence and the transposition of horror from the supernatural to the human psyche. Not to mention an insistent soundtrack, banging doors, dark cupboards, light switches that don’t work, and gory faces slamming against every available window.
As this list of clichés suggests, Brody appears in almost every scene in Backtrack, his performance consistently subtle against considerable odds. When Peter decides to return his childhood home in search of answers, he complicates a conventional scene. William (George Shevtsov), is taking refuge in his tool shed to avoid his family. With just a defiant turn of the head and an awkward swig from a bottle, Peter conveys both unresolved adolescent defiance and a still-burning resentment at being excluded from what this father calls “man stuff”.
When William apologizes for his absence from his granddaughter’s funeral, Peter quietly asks, “Is that what you’re calling ‘drunk’ these days?” The son’s venom ignites in viewers a flicker of sympathy for the estranged father, alone in his small house in a small town.
In fact, the relationship between father and son oozes complexity from their first scenes together. Shevtsov shares Brody’s lean physiognomy, with the younger man’s edgy, nervous grace replaced by the slower, stooped elegance of age. Their first meeting occurs in the back garden, standing side by side, but not touching, accentuating their shared genome. The physical resemblance pushes the audience to question what else the pair might share and also, just how much they might want to identify with Peter. We might wonder, for instance, why he’s staying with his father during this difficult visit to the past. What else might he be doing that’s motivated in ways we don’t understand?
We see Peter reading old newspaper cuttings in his bedroom, then a scene where William reads through the same cuttings, in the same room, some time later. No explanation of this repetition follows. Only when the movie is approaching its denouement do father and son actually hold eye contact for more than a moment, and their final face-to-face confrontation tellingly appears in the same wide shot as their initial conversation in the garden.
As counterpoise to the father and son dyad stands the local constable, Barbara Henning (Robin McLeavy). On screen only briefly, she exhibits all the dangerous practicality of Frances McDormand in Fargo mode. When Peter reveals the hauntings that have driven him to make a confession to the police, she answers dryly that she doesn’t think she can help him in the way he needs help. When she confronts Bower senior with her own deductions about his son’s past, her matter-of-fact delivery and wide-eyed transparency transform into icy threat.
Although the movie collapses into frenetic action and absurd resolution, Backtrack’s final two-thirds still achieve an appealing tautness thanks to these fine performances. They also indicate how the movie goes wrong: If Petroni had stripped the sometimes quite sharp script (which he also wrote) of its derivative, and risible, hauntings of Peter as a therapist, he might have turned his sharp eye and expressionist sensibility to a far richer investigation of the family drama.
Despite Peter’s fretting, this movie is less about what happens after a parent loses a child than about the ongoing moral disintegration when family, social mores, and truth collide. Greek dramatists understood the necessity of cathartic loss in such tales, of complications that resist resolution. Backtrack opts instead for psychobabble simplicity.