Backtrack is a reasonably well-crafted psychological thriller held back by the fact that it doesn't have one single element that feels unique. The direction is polished and assured, Adrien Brody's lead performance is persuasively tormented, the story hums along at a solid pace and the much of the imagery on display is effectively creepy... and yet, it's impossible to shake the feeling that we've seen all of this before and that it was a bit better the last time. Here's a piece of The Sixth Sense, there's a piece of Don't Look Now, here's a piece of Memento... why not just watch one of those?
Brody plays Peter Bower, an Australian psychiatrist who begun to notice some strange similarities in the stories his troubled patients are telling him. Peter has been experiencing quite a bit of psychological distress himself lately: his daughter was killed in a horrific accident the previous year, and he sees hallucinatory images of her from time to time (because of course he does). Eventually, he begins to wonder if all the stories he's hearing are connected to a traumatic event from his own childhood, so he travels back to his small hometown and begins reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances in search of answers.
I realize that's a vague plot description, but like a lot of films in this genre, Backtrack is one of those movies that depends heavily on dramatic revelations that place everything we've seen thus far in a new light. It has a lot of those, but due to the fact that most of them are re-worked versions of things we've seen in other movies, it's a little too easy to see them coming. Meanwhile, the movie serves up the sort of moody filler designed to kill time/raise suspense between those revelations: brief flashes of dark memories accompanied by ominous piano music, shots of our lead character looking concerned, scenes in which various characters – like Duncan, played by the ever-reliable Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) - ask Peter if he's doing okay.
Brody continues to be one of those puzzling actors who clearly has a fair amount of raw talent but rarely seems to find the right outlet for it. He's quite good here, selling the character's lingering heartbreak and offering a few dozen solid variations on “ordinary guy looking upset about something.” His Australian accent is respectable, too. The most effective turn comes from George Shevtosv (Dead Calm) as Peter's father... not because Shevtosv's performance is so convincing (though it is), but because Shevstosv looks like he could actually be Brody's dad (I had to check IMDb just to make sure he wasn't).
Films this formulaic often feel dreary, as if everyone involved knows they're making something destined for the bargain bin. The best thing about Backtrack (and also the most frustrating thing) is that you can sense that director Michael Petroni and his collaborators really care about doing this thing right. It's formula made with real conviction, as if we're being given all of this well-worn material for the first time. During the last act, as the biggest and most dramatic revelations are handed down, Petroni even manages to muster up a bit of genuine tension thanks to his skillful handling of a predictable moment. If you've never seen a psychological thriller before, it might actually work pretty well.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2016