Director: Michael Petroni
Stars: Adrien Brody, Sam Neill
2 (out of 5) Globes
In the moody Australian film “Backtrack,” director Michael Petroni wants you to think you’re watching a horror film. The camera darts around spaces, as though preparing for a boo. The shrill strings build to a crescendo, as though commanding us to grab our armchairs. But we’re not watching a horror film. The boos never (or almost never) come, and it quickly becomes clear this ghost movie isn’t that kind of ghost movie. It’s one that’s about something. It’s about grief and guilt, with creepy spirits there to guide our hero — an anguished psychoanalyst played by an anguished Adrien Brody — to slow, step-by-step realization of deeply, conveniently suppressed movie trauma.
Of course, lots of genre movies are about something. Many of horror’s best — most recently, the Sundance fave “The Witch” — sneak in subversive, transgressive ideas among the scares and jumps and, sometimes, laughs. “Backtrack” frontloads the ideas, then forgets about the rest. Still reeling from the death of a child, Brody’s Peter Bower comes to realize all his current patients and even his mentor (Sam Neill) are spirits, and of people who died in a train accident he and a friend caused when they were rascally kids. His shame was such that he completely blocked the accident, and has apparently spent the last few weeks talking to himself in rooms.
Ordinarily that epiphany would be the jaw-dropping conclusion. “Backtrack”’s one novel idea is to put it in the first act. Alas, it’s a dumb idea masquerading as a smart one. Turns out this realization is just the first of many, with twists spread out like land mines over the remaining hour. Despite its tony no-mere-horror-flick vibe, the film isn’t really interested in exploring the life of the mind. Trauma becomes an excuse for a series of goosing hairpin plot turns, each more ridiculous than the last, reducing a potentially rich and devastating character study into a mere goose-a-thon.
It’s a shame because it has all the weapons needed to make this nerve-jangling and trenchant. Despite a CV filled out with hired-hand screenwriting work — like “Queen of the Damned,” “The Rite” and “The Book Thief” — filmmaker Michael Petroni is a better director than author. “Backtrack” has the air of an accomplished, even austere look at deep stuff, clearly inspired by films like “The Others” and “Repulsion,” which dig deep into the way fractured minds are scarier than any creature we can imagine. Brody, too, commits to a meatier film, wasting a haunted turn and a subtle, un-pushy Aussie accent on a film that wraps up with soothing and faux-therapeutic bull.