On small-scale apocalypse, resisting plot formula, and the delicate spareness of Into the Forest
Into the Forest A24
Director: Patricia Rozema
Screenplay: Patricia Rozema, based on the novel by Jean Hegland
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Callum Keith Rennie and Max Minghella
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
In most movies, plot is something that happens. And then maybe it's fixed, or put back together, or avenged, or otherwise resolved. Then more plot happens. But more often than not, in one way or another, everything revolves around the way things used to be before that pesky plot intruded upon it.
Patricia Rozema's Into the Forest has a unique way of bypassing the standard rituals of plot development, simply by embracing its repercussions, rather than using it as a springboard for more plot. Whereas in most films there are Things That Happen, here there's instead the sense that things have happened, and now things simply are how they are. The film and its two central characters simply have to settle in, come what may. They slide from one normal to the next, and to the next. There are little aftershocks of plot - characters fitfully attempting to resist the latest harsh reality an indifferent world has foisted upon them - but by and large Nell (Ellen Page) and her sister Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) simply have to get used to it. Over and over.
This is not by accident or by requirement, but for a film whose ultimate subject is the characters' very adaptability, it's an essential approach to take - not to mention a fascinating direction for a postapocalyptic narrative. With its every gesture (including - no, especially - its bold climactic one), Into the Forest is moving on, moving forward, and forcing its characters to do the same, no matter how strange or painful it might be. They live an idyllic life with all the creature comforts they could ask for, and then they do not. They are studying for college or pursuing a career, and then they are not. They have a loving father who provides for them, and then they do not. They have electricity and transportation and communication with the entire globe, and then all of it is gone. What begins as vague murmurs and rumblings of economic distress turns into reports of temporary brownouts. Those temporary brownouts turn into permanent ones. Just like that, the world has gotten smaller, extending no further than the forest that surrounds your house. That house and those surrounding woods that were once simply your safe haven are now your entire existence. And maybe it's not so safe anymore, either.
We've seen the world fall apart on film many times before, but there's always the tendency to build back toward a recognizable civilization - on a smaller, microcosmic scale, but recognizable nonetheless. Even something like The Walking Dead, existing in a world that is irrevocably altered, is built around structured societies that put characters in familiar roles, despite the circumstances. But Into the Forest wholeheartedly embraces the isolation that comes with its premise (and its rural Pacific Northwest setting). Rozema - adapting Jean Hegland's novel of the same name - emphasizes the space around the characters (the wide-open rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows of the house, with the foreboding vastness of the surrounding woods unavoidably framing shot after shot) rather than the characters themselves, and doesn't attempt to contrive ways to form new, mini-societies than can survive or rebuild together. No, she makes clear that Nell and Eva are on their own for the long run. In fact, there's an intruding subplot that puts a traditional contrivance on the table, only to watch it dissipate. Rumors crop up about civilization rising again - "I've heard the lights are back on in Boston" - always somewhere distant, someplace that sounds exotic by comparison to the present situation. Along comes Nell's kinda-sorta boyfriend Eli (Max Minghella) to whisk her off to one of these refuted sanctuaries.
But the glow of those romantic promises fades quickly, and the world is small again. To some, this detour will seem like a waste of time - and I admit it feels like the most strained, sluggish portion of an otherwise efficient piece of filmmaking. But despite the disruption in pacing, it's still a valuable reaffirmation of the film's point of view. It's a subplot that allows the characters to behave like humans - to still have that hope for a place where the world is right again, to have idealized notions of running away to safety, to a better life - while still generally operating contrary to the typical postapocalyptic tale.
A different but more potent example of that balance between practical resilience and fundamental human inclinations is embodied by the older sister Eva, a dancer. The loss of power stripped her not only of what she believed was her last best chance to make it in her field, but even of the music that she practices to for hours every day - the music that disciplines her, that gives her rhythm, that gives her joy. This apocalyptic event has practically taken away her circadian clock. Unlike the more practical Nell, there's a tension that hovers around Eva - a fervor that wants to fight back against ... well, whatever it is that has trapped them here in this house, in this remote place, seemingly forever.
Eva ultimately proves every bit as adaptable as her sister (if not more so), but there's a clash between her passionate impulses and her sensible ones, and it's a tension that Wood - in the best of the film's performances - pulls off marvelously.
Dramatizing the end of civilization - particularly one whose cause is as nebulous as that of Into the Forest - on a small, intimate scale has plenty of precedent. In recent years, we've seen similarly low-budgeted examples like Z for Zachariah, How I Live Now and Goodbye World, as well as ambitious prestige fare like John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road, or more overtly genre-fied (but still fundamentally small-scale) attempts like Gareth Edwards' Monsters.
This film is one of the most interesting and honest of this 21st Century slate. Rozema challenges her two lead characters, but refuses to ever pity them. As the story moves along, we learn the same lesson they do: the lights aren't going to miraculously come back on; no one is going to come along to save them; a new society isn't going to sprout up in their midst and get things to a more modest version of normal. There is a true optimism to Into the Forest, but without any false declarations. Its story is both the end of one thing and the beginning of another - but what will be is vastly different from what once was.