Canada's Top Ten Review: 'Into the Forest'

Into the Forest
(Canada, 101 min.)
Written and directed by Patricia Rozema
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood
Photo courtesy of TIFF

Sisters Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) are going wild. They aren’t going into the wild, mind you, for they’re already there. The sisters hole up in their family’s beautiful cottage that sits tucked kilometres away from civilization in the Vancouver woods. Things are dire, but Into the Forest doesn’t tell the audience why. It just gives impressions, feelings, as the sisters restlessly pursue their studies with the creature comforts of light, music, and electricity. Then all goes black.

Into the Forest gives a story akin to a dystopian drama as an unknown catastrophe puts the world in a blackout. The film marks a firm comeback for writer/director Patricia Rozema who delivers another boldly lyrical and literary film that fans of her ingenious 1999 Jane Austen pic Mansfield Park will relish. As with Mansfield Park, Into the Forest breathes with the same visionary that often puts Rozema in lists of this country’s top filmmakers. Her latest film might be the sharpest feminist tale in a body of work that creates strong roles for women as Nell and Eva endure the elements. The sisters live in isolation with their dad (Callum Keith Rennie, memorable in a small role) and the radios aren’t giving much in the way of information. Living offline, in that bubble outside the Twittersphere and the world of instant news, is a unique, surreal, and terrifying experience for a plugged-in person of today.

A trip to town, however, reveals that things are dire. A store clerk (Michael Eklund, in a sinister performance that makes the skin crawl) holds the scant remains of provisions at a shotgun’s length and gas is a hotter commodity akin to prohibition-era hooch. The film evokes the allegorical world of Blindness with the eerie imagery of a town on the verge of a meltdown. The family, reading the clues that trouble’s a-brewin’, heads back into the safety of the woods and the resources of the natural surroundings.

Then an unexpected tragedy rocks the safety of the cottage and the sisters find themselves in a disaster far greater than whatever terror is sweeping the globe. Loneliness, isolation, and insecurity reframe the safety of their surroundings as they realize that they are wholly dependent on the woods and each other for survival, as the few gallons of gas remaining are barely enough for a round-trip to town.

Page and Wood give excellent performances as the two dynamic sisters. Both actresses push themselves to physical and emotional lengths as their characters endure the hardship of the woods and the harsher element of being cut off from the world and the luxuries they’ve come to see as life sources. Page, who also produced the film, does ample hard work as Nell, the studious sister who becomes the more pragmatic sibling of the pair when she assumes a leadership role and manages the supplies with great efficiency. A rock of reason and rationality, Page’s Nell is easily the one of the siblings who one might want to have on a desert island.

Wood, on the other hand, gives the film a strong emotional centre as Eva, the artsier and more creative talent of the sisters. Into the Forest charts the progress of the catastrophe, and of the sisters’ dire isolation, through the development of Eva’s art. Eva, a dancer, throws herself into her rehearsals as she strives to perfect her form and technique for an audition that comes whenever the world returns to normal. Wood throws herself into Eva’s rehearsals with sharp, increasingly violent movements as she dances to the beat of a metronome in place of the music that usually gives her dance its beat. The dances and the clicks of the metronome give the film a hint of madness thanks to Wood’s intense and full-bodied performance. She’s cabin fever in a contemporary dance.

The film needs both sisters to work on par, though, and Page and Wood create a strong sisterly bond as the drives and energies of each sibling complement the other. The minimalist balancing act from Rozema keeps the scope of the tragedy intimate and powerful through the relationship of the sisters. It’s emotionally arduous thanks to the closeted scope that invests the audience in the sisters’ survival, although the film might have benefited from a running time that was equally tight. Similarly, Rozema keeps the dystopian element sparse by withholding as much information as possible to shroud the film in ambiguity and menace. Things are scarier under the shroud of uncertainty when the imagination lets one invent the cause and—worse—false hopes that offer escape.

Into the Forest is not an eco-thriller per se, but in the years since Y2K when people are more dependent on technology than ever, it conveys the pleasures in sans-Siri resourcefulness as the sisters explore the terrain outside the house. The house itself becomes a richly symbolic character as it degenerates quickly in the months following the blackout. Shooting in a house with so much glass and open space, Into the Forest uses the sunlight to a practical effect as the stirring cinematography by Daniel Grant favours natural palettes for the film’s strong imagery, and the evocative score by Max Richter is wonderfully unsettling. Into the Woods feels timeless in its natural setting and haunting woodland landscape—it’s a relevant cautionary tale not for tomorrow, but for today. Rozema uses the lush authority of the dense landscape to create a setting that feels safe in one frame and wildly beautiful and terrifying in the next. Into the Woods finds a strong parable about looking to the natural resources of the landscape as the film builds a ripe allegory about getting back to basics and living off the land.

There’s an air of Margaret Atwood, too, to the rich dystopian atmosphere that uses the pull of the wilderness and a strong feminist energy to engage the viewer in a compelling parable of survival. This adaptation from the book by Jean Hegland firmly puts Rozema in Atwood territory and the director’s a perfect fit for the material. Into the Forest sees Rozema in her element as she devises a powerful, lyrical film driven by the resilience of two women. The film is Rozema at her best and arguably one of her most visually and thematically satisfying works. She lets the actresses be commanding vessels for this tale of sisterhood and rebirth.

Similarly, the director challenges the actors (particularly Wood) to put their characters through hell as the sisters encounter evil predators that emerge from the woods and circle the home like hungry dogs. Rozema handles an act of brutal violence with sensitivity, yet the film cuts with a visceral sting by restricting the range of the camera’s gaze to the pain of the victim. The film mimics the sense of isolation afforded by the woods in its confined and tight framing, and the violence that takes the film into its unexpected third act is likely to polarize, but the challenge brings its own rewards. One feels suffocated until the final images of release. Into the Forest is one of Rozema’s best films yet.

Into the Forest screened as part of the Canada’s Top Ten festival.
It opens in theatres this spring from Elevation Pictures.