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These days, according to a New York Times Opinionator article by Richard Brouillette (March 16, 2015), the psychotherapist’s job is on shifting ground. Doctors are now dealing less with relationships and family problems and treating more patients suffering from workplace trauma and financial stress. Brouillette writes: “I see a lot of early and mid-career professionals coping with relentless email and social-media obligations, the erasing of work-life boundaries.”

Apparently, more people are lying on the couch to talk about work and money than about love and sex.

In “Backtrack,” however, Peter Bowen (Adrien Brody) is pretty much an old-school psychotherapist. His patients have serious personal issues that they wear on their sleeves and want to discuss, and they all cling to Peter as their last hope. After reading that NYT article, this seems refreshing, quaint and very late 20th century. Until Peter realizes that all his patients are actually deceased. Cue the whispering voice of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” though this is not a spoiler.

Backtrack (Shinreidokutaa to Kesareta Kioku)
Rating
Run Time 90 mins
Language English
Opens MAY 14

“Backtrack” is an intriguing blend of psychological thriller, mystery and horror — an exploration of memories that people usually deliberately suppress in order to protect their sanity — written and directed by Michael Petroni. As his second feature, it is thoughtful, well-crafted and, though set in present day, infused with a retro ambience that invites remarks and sentiment to the tune of “They just don’t make movies like this anymore.”

For one thing, the scary scenes are paced, so you’re not jumping out of your seat every other minute. Petroni also has the shrewdness to keep the ghostly apparitions down to a minimum. The story, meanwhile, takes its time, building up the mystery surrounding Peter brick by solid brick. Though all this can get frustrating, you are reminded that great films were once created to be savored, not just designed as relentless rollercoaster rides of action entertainment.

The story is almost always focused on Peter, who is himself a pained and tortured man. He and his wife Carol (Jenni Baird) leave Sydney for their hometown after the death of their young daughter, and while Carol spends the day drugged out on the bed to escape the pain of her loss, Peter attempts to bury himself in work.

That proves more difficult than he bargained for — his new patients behave bizarrely and speak in an odd manner. One disappears right in front of his eyes. That these people are already dead is revealed early on in the film, and the discovery marks the starting point of Peter’s real journey. Determined to understand why he’s been haunted by patients, he discovers that they all died in 1987, which leads him back to his childhood home, where he struggles to remember an incident that happened to him as a teenager.

“Backtrack” is an Australian film, which probably accounts for Petroni being able to swing such quality filmmaking on a small budget. The surprise is seeing Oscar winner Adrien Brody at the top of the cast list, but then the actor has never been the type of A-lister to shun indie projects. Brody has starred in a sizable number of modest anti-extravaganzas including “Bread and Roses (2000)” and “High School (2010),” and he’s certainly no stranger to the horror genre (see “Predators”). His presence in “Backtrack” is also the movie’s raison d’etre — it’s a vehicle for his talent and he’s firmly positioned center stage. Not a single scene would work without him there. (He even sports a genuinely convincing Australian accent.)

Admittedly, the story isn’t terribly original, and in many key scenes Petroni pays blatant homage to “The Sixth Sense.” Still, the director saves the best for last, and unlike many horror films, “Backtrack” doesn’t peter out to an inconclusive ending. Surprise is promised, and it is delivered with audacity and flair. The build-up may be uncharacteristically slow in this day and age, but it’s well worth the wait.

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