The quickest way to understand the intent of a filmmaker is to look for a lingering camera. What is the singular obsession of this story as understood by the people who made it? What, when she has it in her sights, can the director simply not look away from?
For Patricia Rozema, writer/director of the new drama Into the Forest, that obsession is grief. Or, perhaps more acutely, the physical experience of felt emotion. Loss, isolation, despair; time after time, in Into the Forest, Rozema and her cinematographer Daniel Grant linger on the faces of young women undergoing traumatic emotional experiences. In highlighting emotion over story, Rozema asks more from her audience than we are accustomed to when watching an apocalyptic movie. We are asked not to wonder at the cause of the world’s end, or to enjoy an exciting ride through a ravaged hellscape. Instead we are asked to share the fear and loss of young women in dire times.An adaptation of Jean Hegland’s novel, Into the Forest is an apocalyptic story by way of the arthouse. The movie stars Evan Rachel Wood as Eva and Ellen Page as Nell, sisters living with their father (Callum Rennie) in the woods of British Columbia. One day, while Eva dances in her studio and Nell studies for her exams, the power goes out. No big deal. But the power doesn’t return the next day, or the next; eventually an emergency broadcast informs the family that rolling blackouts on the grid have left North America without power.
Ten days after the outage, the family finally makes a trip into town, where they find stores looted, houses empty, and most of the people gone. They get what they can, return to their home, and decide to wait for the power to come back. It never does. In short order, the women are separated from their father, left in the house alone, faced with the challenges of living completely on their own. What follows is a story of boredom, fear, hope and tragedy.
To pass the days, Eva dances to her metronome and Nell studies for her exams. They have to answer basic questions: what will they eat? how will they protect themselves? should they follow rumors of power elsewhere or stay put in their isolated home? These questions are common in apocalyptic stories; their answers often make the difference between life or death. What separates Into the Forest, though, is that Rozema does not ask these questions because the answers will change Eva and Nell’s fate. She asks them to see how the women will cope with the ultimate answers.
In many ways, Into the Forest is a story of adaptation. But the experiences of death and loss and violence are not dulled because the world is falling apart, and Rozema portrays the end of the world not as fantasy or horror but as a series of difficult losses that must be reckoned with.
To effect that reckoning, the audience undergoes direct exposure to Eva and Nell’s pain. We do so through powerful images that complicate out emotional experiences. This being British Columbia, the women are surrounded by stunning vistas of giant trees and lush mountains. Page and Wood are photographed in sobs, screaming rage, horrifying violence, in front of a lush and fecund backdrop. Natural beauty gives hard contrast to the modern architecture of the family home, which provides visual access to multiple rooms simultaneously, and jarring shots of separation that build isolation from the outside world, and between the women. The cumulative effect is not one of narrative satisfaction but of emotional exposure.
Page and Wood have long since proven their mettle as actors, and both do tremendous work, even as the story stretches to the very limit (or beyond) of manipulation. In the third act, Rozema might very well lose control of her film, but Page and Wood keep audiences grounded with their physicality and expressiveness.
Which is a crucial victory for Rozema, because the story is not the point of Into the Forest. The relationship of these siblings is all that matters. The compounding, overwhelming emotional states of Eva and Nell make for a difficult, at times off-putting cinematic experience. And I imagine many viewers will be pushed away by the film’s dedication to the intimacy of this sibling relationship, and the lack of familiar story elements we expect in apocalyptic fiction. The decisions faced in the film’s final act are unexpected (and possibly manipulative), and the choices Eva and Nell make are perhaps highly improbable.
But thanks to Rozema, Page and Wood, the sisters have earned their choices. When Eva stands before Nell, justifying a decision that that seems to Nell unjustifiable, she says: “I don’t think I can lose anything else.” And we understand her. We understand because Rozema has made a film that asks us to experience the emotions of her characters rather than trot along with a familiar plot. We understand because Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood have made us feel their grief, and we understand why they decide to continue, and follow the path they do.
Watching Into the Forest reminded me a quote from the author Monica Byrne, who’s Girl in the Road, like Rozema and Hegland’s, was a story about two women in unconventional apocalyptic tale. Byrne spoke about why the genre is “disproportionately embraced by white men,” positing that it affords an opportunity to “re-remake the world in their image.” But that, Byrne says, is just not reflective of the actual world. “We have had incredible disasters—9/11, Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami—but, we go on. The world goes on.”
That same feeling come from Eva and Nell, two women, alone, facing the end of the world.