Film Review: Survival drama ‘Into the Forest’ chainsaws assumptions with an effective minimalist approach

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into-the-forest-posterPatricia Rozema’s Into the Forest ditches all tropes and genre sensationalism implied by its title for a truly groundbreaking minimalist approach that only a studio like A24 could nurture. Instead of focusing on the “why” or “who” or “what” involved with the global power outage that ushers a slow-burn apocalypse, Rozema is more interested in depicting women operating solely on survival instinct. Stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood hit career-highs playing two sisters forced to depend on each other following a freak accident that claims their father’s life, leaving them utterly alone in their cabin retreat to face the incoming doom. There are no supernatural forces at work, no government conspiracies to fear, and no “higher power” reason behind humanity’s possible extinction. One of the greatest survival dramas I have ever seen, Into the Forest derives its horror from combating mother nature sans technology…and men without laws to keep their dark primal urges at bay.

Isolated from the hustle and bustle of city life, sisters Nell (Page) and Eva (Rachel Wood) discover they are more than capable of fending for themselves as civilization comes to a standstill. Nell’s studious nature – she’s in hardcore study mode for a major exam pre-apocalypse – provides her the patience to take all information into account before solving a problem as simple as food/water conservation. Meanwhile, Eva is more humanly reactionary, prone to quick fits of frustration or indulging in the last remains of their generator’s electricity. Eva is a professional dancer, and without music to accompany her routines, she feels utterly directionless. Eva’s dilemma might sound ridiculous when compared to the larger problem at hand, but it’s understandable when acknowledging our current state as a species. We’ve evolved so much that our lives have become our comforts, not daily struggles to sustain existence as in centuries past.

Into the Forest’s tortoise pacing turns out to be one of its best qualities. We marinate in the love shared between sisters, which isn’t without its difficulties but is the primary source of strength pushing them from one day to the next. Rozema instills in us that women are not only self-sufficient without the aid of a man (whose “help” can often contain an ulterior motive), but that they are also stronger when working together. Nell’s rationality will keep the siblings alive, but Eva’s devotion to preserving what makes us human in the 21st century provides meaning to a catastrophe testing mankind’s value. Even when facing the cruelest of obstacles – a horrific rape scene in which the phenomenal Evan Rachel Wood authenticates the most demoralizing experience a woman can ever endure – the siblings’ resiliency and tenacity to move forward never waver.

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What’s so interesting about the film’s title, besides confusing the heck out of viewers with regards to genre, is that it’s actually a survival strategy, not an ominous action. Complacency, isolation and reclusive domestication are only temporary solutions to a greater problem. Nell and Eva’s realization of this is realistically slow, stewing in uncertainty yet unearthing skills they hadn’t even known they possessed. The elongation of time is amply felt, and by the time the sisters make a choice of serious consequence for their future, you feel as though you’ve run a marathon with wounded knees.

Into the Forest is in many ways a spiritual sister of Sean Penn’s quietly powerful Into the Wild. Aside from the obvious shared setting and genre, both illuminate the brutality of Earth’s wilderness without diluting its meditative allure. A24 and DirecTV have partnered together on Into the Forest, the former of which will distribute the film in select theaters beginning this weekend. The film has been available for exclusive streaming on DirecTV since last month. Be sure to check out one of the best films of 2016 thus far wherever available, but first don’t forget to watch its stunning trailer below.

GRADE: (★★★½)