Into the Forest has a lot going for it: a seasoned director in Patricia Rozema, an underrepresented perspective, a sumptuous location, and a clever riff on the post-apocalypse that relies on not a single zombie. It’s gorgeously shot and elegant in its unfolding, so it’s unfortunate that the experience of watching it feels more like a dirge than an adventure.
Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood star as Nell and Eva, a pair of sisters who live with their father (Callum Keith Rennie) in an isolated cabin in the woods. They’re not roughing it, however, as the story takes place in a not-too-distant future where the evolutions in electronics don’t look futuristic so much as inevitable; it’s probably the 10th or 11th iteration of the iPhone they’re using. That’s why it’s such a shock when the power goes out, and an even bigger one when it seems unlikely to ever come back on. The loss of power leads to dwindling resources and the sense that T.S. Eliot was right about the apocalypse, after all: there’s no bigger whimper than the gentle blip of a TV blacking out.
Into the Forest was adapted from Jean Hegland’s book of the same name, and it feels born of a prestige novel’s measured pace and internalized evolution. The outage doesn’t breed mass chaos, but instead a slow decimation of resources and the mounting realization that ingenuity is the only guarantee of survival, especially with the eventual distrust of your fellow man that inevitably arises in post-apocalyptic lore.
But this is no ensemble piece. What makes Into the Forest special is how it uses a societal downfall to tell such an intimate story. Though we meet a few other characters – Nell’s boyfriend, Eli (Max Minghella), for example – everything centers around Nell, Eva, and how stakes such as these fundamentally change their bonds of sisterhood. The film’s most satisfying takeaway lies in how each slowly comes to drift from the things that defined them in their regular lives – school, dance, boys – in favor of the routines and relationships that must be upheld in order to survive in this new, terrifying world.
What hobbles the film, however, is an emotional bloat, a desire to engender “all the feels” through myriad excesses. Composer Max Richter’s bloated score threatens to overwhelm nearly every moment of emotional catharsis, as does Page’s outsized performance. She’s an undoubtedly compelling onscreen presence, but her off-center intensity is better suited to spectacle than intimacy. The film’s final act drowns within so many orchestral swells and strained sobs that you wish Rozema could’ve trusted the material to resonate on its own just a bit more.
Her direction is assured, however, and she finds ample beauty in the film’s arboreal milieu. What’s especially striking are the ways she juxtaposes light and dark — the cone of a car’s headlights carving a hole in pitch blackness, or how a flickering candle casts an entirely different kind of light than the artificial glows to which we’re accustomed.
There’s strength and defiance in Into the Forest’s message, and it’s wonderful to see two women come into their own as survivors without the help of a Superman or deus ex machina. But there’s also something laborious about Into the Forest, especially in its rain-soaked final act. At its core, it’s a simple and triumphant tale of sisterhood, but with so much ladled on top of it it begins to feel as though it’s grasping for a grandeur it doesn’t need. Sometimes, even the most intense emotions can benefit from a light touch.