Tribeca Thrillers: Adrien Brody Sees Dead People in Backtrack


Adrien Brody sees dead people — so, so many dead people — in Backtrack, an Australian hybrid of The Sixth Sense and every thriller to ever feature “retrograde amnesia” as a laughable plot device. In Michael Petroni’s nonsensical mystery, Brody is Peter Bower, a therapist who’s still grieving over the traffic-accident death of his daughter, and who comes to realize that every one of his patients (including Sam Neill’s psychologist, and a spooky, screamy young girl) is dead, and in fact died on the very same date in 1987.

That’s also the day that Peter, as a kid, was involved in a train accident that killed scores of innocents — a connection that motivates Peter to go back home, visit his drunken ex-cop father (George Shevtsov), and try to remember that crucial moment in his life that he’s apparently suppressed for the sake of contrived narrative suspense. Since the story boasts only four living characters, the revelations prove predictable. Yet they don’t really matter, since the entire film culminates in a ghostly-vengeance finale that could have happened without any of Peter’s sleuthing actually taking place — and, consequently, without anyone having to suffer through scene after scene of darkly lit non-action, as well as an over-tormented Brody’s phony Aussie accent.

There’s also plenty of suffering in Hyena, though it’s borne by its cast of lawmen, who are led by an undercover officer named Michael (A Field in England’s Peter Ferdinando) desperately trying to play both sides for his own personal gain. Recalling the multicultural-Euro urban nightmares of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, Gerard Johnson’s film posits London as a grimy hellhole of barren apartments, neon-lit strip clubs, and other desolate locales. In that milieu, Michael attempts to stay one step ahead of a bullet from the various criminals he’s simultaneously tracking and partnering with — a modus operandi that gets more complicated when his cocaine-distributing acquaintance is murdered by two Albanian brothers (Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi) with a predilection for dismemberment. Making matters worse, Michael is under investigation by an internal-affairs weasel (Richard Dormer), and is forced to team up with a former friend (Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham) whose career was nearly ruined by Michael’s backstabbing snitching.

Hyena’s convoluted tale is given a fresh coat of grime by Johnson’s direction, which favors handheld cinematography — often tracking its protagonists from behind — that gives the action a pseudo-vérité ruggedness. With a droning electronic score by The The amplifying its mood of doom-laden desperation, the film casts Michael’s plight as one in which constant reassessment of shifting circumstances — and flip-flopping allegiances — is the only way to keep breathing. Though its seedy subject matter is hardly novel, there’s enough blunt-force vitality to Johnson’s story to make up for its lack of originality, and Ferdinando’s lead performance has a sweaty anxiety that ultimately mounts to such a fever pitch that it potently reconfirms the notion that police corruption is a pit of quicksand from which even the canniest of crooked cops rarely escapes.