Michael Petroni’s Backtrack might have been more accurately titled Piggyback, given its allegiances to such films about ghosts and the agony of “letting go” of trauma as Don’t Look Now, The Sixth Sense, and The Others. Yet there’s no melancholy to its understanding of grief, no intellectual symbiosis between its editing and performances, and no grace or surprise to its many narrative sleights of hand. It’s also no spoiler to acknowledge the films that Petroni tips his hat to, as it’s revealed very early on that Sydney psychologist Peter Bower (Adrien Brody), still grieving from the death of his daughter a year ago, doesn’t meet with actual patients, but with ghosts from his past. With increasing and inexplicable rage, these specters drop for him a trail of breadcrumbs that takes him back to his childhood home, in a town whose name is too unbelievably on point to spoil here. Needless to say, the name tips the film’s hand: Nothing here is quite as it seems.
As Peter, Brody gamely strains for a ruefulness that’s unfortunately unmatched by the familiar sound and fury of Petroni’s aesthetics, which are beholden less to the spirit of the psychic thrillers of yore, classics like Don’t Look Now that unnervingly and expressionistically convey the silence of Munch’s muted scream, than to the crude jump factories of the present. That the film’s ghosts speak, yet refuse to cut to the chase, can be easily explained, as they’re incapable of foresight past their human form’s death; early on, Peter diagnoses a patient, unknown to him yet as a phantasm, as having amnesia. More inexplicable is the animosity of their ways: They’re just noisy bullies who exist solely to remind Peter that there’s another increasingly darker secret around the corner pointing to the truth about the childhood trauma that would eventually and perversely lead to his daughter’s death. (In one hilarious bit of framing, the ghosts take turns appearing to Peter on a swing outside his childhood bedroom.)
Bikes, train tracks, a mysterious car, a meeting with an old chum at a bar, a girls’ school pin—all the incidents that dot Peter’s trip down memory lane point toward each other in ways spectacularly banal and expected. Through it all, the expressions of remorse, agony, and resentment felt by the characters, as in a scene between Peter and a local policewoman (Robin McLeavy) with ties—of course—to the trauma that lured the man back to town, feel like afterthoughts to the clockwork with which the overriding mystery is sorted out piecemeal. Which is to say, Backtrack is the cinematic equivalent of watching a Rubik’s Cube noisily solve itself for 90 minutes, eventually and cloying resolving its main character’s agony with a stock wave of the hand. Sadly, audiences aren’t so kindly treated, as we’re ushered out the door with one last bout of gratuitous screaming. Because ghosts suck.