I’m a sucker for fantasy novels. I think it’s because I like to imagine life without the angst of modern civilization. In a harder, simpler world, one’s problems aren’t very complex or subtle. Survival, care of the family, maybe status in a small village... these are the ancient problems that humans have evolved to handle well.
Although Into the Forest is set in the future, a long-lasting power outage gives our sister protagonists a hard, simple world in which to try their luck.
A Minor Inconvenience
Ellen Page, plucky as ever, plays one of a pair of sisters (with Evan Rachel Wood) spending the end of the summer at the family cabin. Actually “cabin” is too crude a term for the modernist house in the rural Canadian woods. It has floor-to-ceiling glass windows, bedrooms, bookshelves, sleek square architecture — there is even a separate greatroom that Eva (Wood) uses as a dance rehearsal space. It has running water, electricity, internet, backup generator — everything you could want, so long as you were not a city girl like Nell (Page).
They’are up at the house with their father (Callum Keith Rennie). Nell is studying for her S.A.T.s while Eva is practicing a dance routine in hopes for one last shot at joining a dance company.
When the power goes out, it’s an inconvenience, but no hardship. There are flashlights, a solar powered radio, a fireplace, candles, plenty of water. Even the generator works.
A Minor Sin, A Minor Victory
Unfortunately, a sticky latch on their Jeep means that a light was left on and the car battery died. The steep driveway means the three of them can’t push-start the car. You can feel the hand of an author contriving to keep the family from civilization, but it’s a minor sin, easily overlooked. It also lets the characters show their intelligence. After many days, Dad wakes up with a brainstorm. He figures out how to charge the battery by spinning the alternator using the motor from the chainsaw. Clever.
The family celebrates their minor victory with a trip into town to buy more gas, stock up on food and water, and see what news is available.
They’re met with suspicion by the local shopkeeper (“Stan,” played creepily by Michael Eklund), who is armed with a shotgun. The shelves are almost completely empty. All the gas is sold out everywhere in town. There’s a shred of community left — other locals gather in the town, but there are also highway bandits looking to take advantage of the slightest weakness.
Father and daughters return to their house, which brings the gas tank down near “E.” The spare canister holds about five gallons and it looks like that’s all they’ll have to split between the generator and the car for a while.
Then, while out gathering firewood, Dad has an accident involving that modified chain saw. He does not survive.
Now the two sisters must not only bury their father but find a way forward. And the film is only half over.
A Minor Catastrophe
A sense of dread slowly descends over the course of Into the Forest. A “power outage” wouldn’t last this long. Something bad has happened to the rest of the world, but without contact, all the sisters can do is try to survive.
Nell is smart and adaptable. There are books in the house with all sorts of useful information on forest plants, home remedies, canning, and the like. If she can learn from books for her S.A.T., she can learn from books how to gut a pig.
Although there are some large conflicts at the end, the film’s arc doesn’t bend toward a specific development. If anything, the film’s main conflict is between the two sisters, each of whom has a very different attitude.
The hand of the author reappears toward the end when the sisters make a really odd decision. It’s one of those illogical horror-movie moments where you want to ask who’s dumber, the characters or the screenwriter. On reflection, the scene probably works exactly as intended — emotionally speaking — though a certain part of the audience will probably shake their heads.
In any case, Into the Forest has plenty of tension and lots of interesting “what ifs” to keep people like me engaged.