Looming trepidation is how I’d describe my experience with 2015’s Into the Forest. Written and directed by Patricia Rozema—with its source material based on a book by the same name—Into the Forest is an end-of-the-world scenario where two sisters, Nell and Eva, learn to live off the land in their father’s cabin. Their return to nature is prompted by North America being struck by a permanent power outage.
Beautifully shot and rich in character development, Into the Forest is buoyed by stellar performances with Ellen Page as Nell and Evan Rachel Wood as Eva. Unfortunately this subtle nuance and unique apocalyptic fiction is marred by disturbing subtext two thirds of the way in.
Motherhood and familial bonds seems to be the theme of this week’s reviews, as can be seen by our recent look at Netflix’s I Am Mother. The feminine touches that weave their way through Into the Forest are on full display, and it initially sets up the film as something totally different from your average apocalyptic horror.
There are no wild premonitions foretelling the doom of these girls or the end of civilization. There is no eerie feeling that something is amiss, or fast-paced action once the apocalypse kicks in. The sisters are simply staying at their father’s mountain cottage, with Eva practicing for her dance recital and Nell practicing her university entrance exam. Suddenly the power goes out.
At first this outage looks to be a typical one, and the sisters—along with their father—make do by stocking up on supplies. But the outage goes on, and on, and slowly both the girls and the viewer are filled with a sense of dread. It’s in how one small thing after another begins to fall apart. How you see faint signs of violence and break-ins as supplies are stretched thin. You also see it in the foreshadowing of future events that the film drops liberally throughout the entire story.
This foreshadowing comes on a bit heavy at times, but it was good to see so much thought put into the narrative. It makes it clear that every action has a purpose behind it: that this story was built with intent. It’s also good to see women involved with the creative process due to Into the Forest’s dicey subject matter.
At the heart of the story is the stunning acting of Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, and Callum Keith Rennie as their father. Most interesting to me was the dynamic between the two sisters and how they cope with the apocalypse. Prior to the event, Nell is rebellious. Eva is practical to the point of self-sabotage. When the apocalypse occurs, they switch roles and Eva begins to fall apart. In an effort to cheer her up, Nell uses what little gas they have to start the generator so they can watch some long-forgotten home movies.
This act of kindness does cheer her up, but it leads to a horrific event that can only be read as a form of punishment. The subtext of it is incredibly bleak.
Normally I am not one for spoilers, and I try to avoid them unless they are mild. However there are some films that include subject material that is so disturbing that advance warning is needed. Into the Forest falls into this trap. Read on if you want to know.
During the course of this apocalyptic scenario, Eva is graphically sexually assaulted on-screen. This sexual assault results in pregnancy. The aftermath of the event is treated with respect by the filmmakers, but the threat of sexual assault is a looming fear for many women. For those who have been assaulted before, seeing this play out in such realistic, vivid detail could be devastating.
To make matters worse, this already terrible plot twist becomes irredeemable when Eva—now pregnant with her assailant’s child—starts spouting inane rhetoric about how she wants to keep the baby and she’s happy she’s having one: implying that sexual assault is “redeemable” so long as it results in conception.
This is a terrible message to send in a film, the depths of which cannot be overstated. The notion that a woman must carry a child to term when that conception was a result of abuse is an immediate red line. From that point forward, I couldn’t enjoy Into the Forest despite the stellar acting. Sitting through the rest of the movie was done with clenched teeth and a queasy stomach. If I had known that this was how the film would end, I would have never watched it in the first place.
While my personal enjoyment of Into the Forest was irrevocably marred, it’s interesting to note that it typifies a kind of apocalyptic fiction where the characters “get back to nature” by learning to live off the land.
This sort of fiction has its roots in a real-life subculture of doomsday “preppers.” They get their name by their habit of preparing for the apocalypse by stocking up on supplies, creating bunkers, and teaching themselves wilderness survival skills.