By Brent Ryan Bellamy
The opening night of The 26th St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival began with a reminder. Noreen Golfman, the chair of the Festival’s board, opened the night by celebrating the overthrow of the Conservative Party in the 42nd Canadian election the night before. With an eye to gender statistics, Golfman noted that with women making up 25% of Canadian parliament (and 50% of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet), today it seems easier to become a successful woman in politics than a woman in the film industry. Her observation emphasized the importance and challenge in addressing a status quo caught in a loop–this occupational imbalance has become much like the electoral cycle of the ruling classes. The film Golfman was introducing, Into the Forest, imagines a story-world where these very hierarchies and ideologies that structure the world continue to exert pressure well after the technology upholding these social structures has powered down.
Patricia Rozema’s film is based on Jean Hegland’s 1998 novel of the same name. In it, Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) and his two daughters, Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood), find themselves without power in a rural, western, North American mountain range. The film has an interesting way of doubling back on itself. After Nell carelessly leaves their vehicle’s door open overnight, draining the battery, Robert gerry-rigs a way to turn the engine over again using a chainsaw motor. Here, the solution to the problem of a dead battery lies in the combustion engine fueled by petrol and masculine innovation. The film captures the family trip to town as a series of encounters laced with tension–the gun toting shopkeeper who eyes Eva too closely, the bikers at the gas station who size up the family vehicle, the drunken bonfire party on the beach, and, finally, the late night encounter with a vehicle at the side of the road (two men, guns, and barely glimpsed activity in the backseat of the car) all leave the viewer wishing the trio had stayed home. The film cleverly reassures our troubled nerves with the light of day only to kill the father off through a sloppy mishap. The engine of Robert’s ruin happens to be the very one that charged the dead battery of the family car. A loose screw in his chainsaw causes the blade to buck out of a tree fatally injuring him and cutting his daughters free from his petro-patriarchal influence. Nell and Eva are now truly on their own.
The two sisters are anything but close, especially at the film’s opening, where they seem separated by their family history and their drive to succeed. What we know about them is that their mother passed away and they push themselves relentlessly: Nell intellectually, studying for the SATs, and Eva physically, rehearsing for a dance audition. Over the course of the film we see the space between them transform through their contest over the remaining fuel and then through the care they begin to show one another.
Critics of the film, however, don’t trust these women or their relationship. In an offhand comment Charles Bramesco writes, “[Nell and Eva’s] verisimilitude as siblings suffers a bit from odd miscasting–there’s no way that Page is studying for her SATs–as well as the fact that Page and Wood don’t look like they could possibly share any DNA.” He doesn’t unpack this accusation against Nell–why wouldn’t she be studying for the SATs? Similarly, giving the film a measly two stars, Nigel M Smith’s review, “Into the Forest review: Ellen Page lost in thorny apocalypse drama,” in The Guardian complains that these aren’t characters an audience can invest in. He seems to want these characters to be relatable. Yes, this is a film, but that doesn’t mean that these women are here for our entertainment. Assuming so misses a crucial point that the film makes about gender. The film privileges a non-male relationship over the male-homosocial relationships (of which we see practically none in the film) and, more importantly, over female-male relationships.
Nell and Eva spend the first months of their lives without power respectively clinging to studying and rehearsing. These characters are competent, driven, and dedicated, but the audience might wonder what the hell Nell and Eva are doing. Their solar power radio only spits out static and in town stores’ shelves have been picked clean. In light of the sense that the power is not coming back on, the film puts the audience in a position to judge these characters as fickle and deluded. Perhaps we are used to the readiness other post-apocalyptic characters show, in Robinsonade fashion, to dig-in and prepare for the long haul. The scene that turns such doubt on its head, is the one where the skills they have been honing come into play. Nell takes it upon herself to hunt wild pigs, which is shown in an extended montage sequence from stalking, killing, and thanking the animal, to gutting, butchering, and preserving the meat–all of this is shown in crisper detail than you could get from a server at a farm to table restaurant. This sequence stands in, then, as an example of the way the film encourages questions about the competency of its characters (and thus also of the writers and filmmakers) only to reveal the weak foundation of such inquiries. The film evokes a gut reaction about these characters doing things badly, as if to catch the audience criticizing women’s work and decision making. Creating a scenario without men, without the ‘here let me help you with that’ fella, it shows Nell and Eva learning from books, from each other, and from the world around them how to live well. Into the Forest creates a scenario where we might be able to recognize the ways patriarchy guards against women’s competence.
Male characters in the film do seem to think these women are there for them, for their company or their bodies. First, Nell’s love interest shows up at the house. This introduces tension between the sisters: Eva reveals her suspicion of Eli (Max Minghella) and anxiety about Nell getting pregnant. Eli asks Nell to join him on a journey to the east, where civilization may be up and running–once more the film rightly binds the promise of modernity with petroculture. The film seems as though it will divide Nell and Eva, who refuses to go, but after heading out on the trail Nell has a change of heart and returns to the house. This important turn sets the sisters up to flourish–they start to gather berries and greens from the forest, taking a first step towards the title’s implied itinerary. A scene where Nell discovers menstrual discharge in her underwear brings on a celebration. The two get drunk and power up the generator to celebrate the childless future.
This comfort gets shattered, either by chance or by Eli’s betrayal of the death of their father to the hungry-eyed store clerk, Stan (Michael Eklund). Stan arrives just after Nell has left to pick berries. We see Eva chopping wood in the foreground as the camera pans to reveal a figure standing nearby watching her. In a close up of Eva’s face, the camera shows her stop struggle. In foreground she faces the camer, her eyes blank. In the background, shallow focus leaves the Jeep blurry. It pulls away.
The violent sexual assault that ensues becomes the heart of the film, devastating these young women’s lives far more than the loss of their father or the slow fading away of modernity. Nell and Eva withdraw into the house. The film formally turns back: shots of family home from early in the film blend it into the surrounding woods, while, after months without power, the camera shows leaks, decay, and rot. The house has become unstable. Their boarded up refuge against the world has been slowly collapsing. The post-traumatic Eva refuses to eat or to speak as the food rots. Here, the film doubles back again to Nell’s narrow miss with pregnancy to reveal Eva is pregnant. As with the chainsaw incident, one crisis averted means another is waiting in the trees. However, even in the face of this decay, Nell models an open and loving way to be there for a survivor of sexual assault, patiently minding Eva and caring for her as she recovers.
The moment Eva goes into labour, the house begins collapsing around them.
Without the continued maintenance and attention of a living breathing family and the warmth and light afforded by the electrical grid, the house cannot support its own weight. Nell and Eva are pushed out into the night away from their past lives and toward an uncertain future.
The power of the post-apocalyptic as a genre is that it can be taken in many ways–this is a film about the end of our reliance on fossil fuels, this is a film about resourcefulness and adversity in the face of crisis, this is a film about survivors. This is also a film about the death of the father, the rejection of the couple-form, and the violence of rape culture. This is a film that allegorizes its own conditions of production. It is about filmmaking, about the challenges facing those who are not men in the film industry, and, at the same time, it posits an object lesson about the way even a masculine dominated genre–survivalist, post-apocalyptic film–can and should be contested.
In an elegant, final doubling back, Nell and Eva use the last of the fuel to light the house on fire. Destroying the remainders of their family home and the last reserves of petrol all at once is sheer poetry. Now what stands between them is only in the future. The film ends in the forest. The sisters are framed with lush foliage. As Eva’s baby boy looks out to the world, we might wonder at his future. He is the final remainder from the calculus of a de-powered world. But, the story of this baby boy in the new world is not told. The development of these characters’ lives is held in abeyance, floating between past and future.
Into the Forest holds back from the restoration of a high-technology world and it does not put forward a positive vision of an alternate future. In this way, the film participates in a politics of refusal that defies the masculine dominance of the genre and the filmmaking industry. Many critics of the film are dissatisfied with what I argue is a feminist mode of storytelling: this is not a story about the father or the son; this is a story about sisters. In a film industry and a culture so dominated by men, sorority, on the level of character, becomes a wedge against the father-son trope and the band of brothers film. That Nell and Eva do not quite look related makes this claim even clearer. They are not there to keep us occupied; they are there for each other. In the story world they are the hunters, artists, caregivers, healers (and so too in the real world). As the sisters burn down the house that the father built–the space of the nuclear family–this film shows their ultimate, if metaphoric, competence, will, and success.
Throughout the film, Nell repeats a mantra about being caught in a fugue state. The plot begins to resemble the DSM-IV definition in a depathologized form: a “sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one’s customary place of work, with inability to recall one’s past.” This is the break that the film argues for in feminist filmmaking and the one it struggles to enact on the level of the plot. Is it any wonder that threats and dangers come not from the world these women are attempting to make together, but from the very limits they wrestle against? The fugue state the film seems to take on at the start has to do with the disorienting timelessness of our fossil fuel present, but, in a clever doubling back, Into the Forest re-purposes the estranging break from the past to depict the possible transformation of gender relationships in this suspended space.