Into the Forest (3 stars) Written and directed by Patricia Rozema Starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood
Koneline: our land beautiful (4 stars) Written and directed by Nettie Wild
In the new documentary Koneline: our land beautiful, a British Columbian guide who leads big-game hunters into the wilderness tells an anecdote about a client asking what survival gear she has in her pack. The question stumps her because she doesn't have any. So instead, she replies: "I don't survive out here; I live out here."
But Patricia Rozema's apocalyptic drama Into the Forest is about nothing but survival: Two young women poised on the brink of promising adult lives are thrust into a primordial struggle when a continental power outage leaves them stranded in their isolated home in the woods.
Both films were shot in western B.C. and capture the danger and the promise of an inspiring natural world. Both feature a lot of action driven by women and depict people confronted with hard choices about how they are going to live. Both include a grisly scene where wild game is skinned and butchered.
Of course, the films are entirely different. Created by documentarian Nettie Wild and recognized as the best Canadian documentary feature at last month's Hot Docs festival in Toronto, Koneline is a subtle and remarkably even-handed evocation of what it means to live near the site of the Red Chris gold-and-copper mine among the sweeping landscapes of northwestern B.C. Into the Forest, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, is a sometimes claustrophobic drama about the relationship between two sisters caught in a fictional extreme.
It was shot more than 1,000 kilometres further south, in forests around Campbell River on the east coast of Vancouver Island and on locations in the Lower Mainland.
And yet, the two Canadian films' coincidental arrival in theatres in the same month – Into the Forest is being released commercially this week; Koneline will be at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto next week – seems serendipitous, sounding thematic notes across the genres. What's the optimum amount of technological modernity? Is life only about putting food on the table?
Perhaps it is to a young father from the Tahltan First Nation who confesses that he now mines the land of his ancestors: Quietly, frankly, he explains this is how he feeds his family. Wild does not judge that; indeed, she reveals a certain heroism in the installation of the transmission towers that will bring power to the Red Chris mine. The battle to get one tower into place is just one of many spectacular images captured by cinematographer Van Royko, whose camera swirls vertiginously over trees and mountains.
Wild skillfully juxtaposes a soundtrack of gentle ruminations about nature, culture and economics spoken by the Tahltan, white hunters and mine workers against a meditative film of ceaseless activity: geologists consider core samples, line workers pull electrical cables, elders blockade a road, locals rescue stranded salmon, hunters shoot a moose, and the guide swims her team of horses across a swollen river.
All these people have a stake in the land; and the mine, opened by a company that suffered a bad spill from a tailings pond at another location, poses a painful dilemma of economics versus environmentalism.
Cleverly, Wild symbolizes that with a traditional Tahltan game in which the dancing players seek to conceal from their opponents in which hand they hold a token. Which one do you choose?
Nell (Ellen Page) and Eva (Evan Rachel Wood) are victims of increasingly desperate circumstances – Into the Forest is one of those movies where you are always wondering what will go wrong next – and, yet, they too emerge as women who are strong enough to make impossible choices. When the lights go out, they are living comfortably with their loving and capable father in a modernist house in the fertile woods of the Pacific Northwest, half a jerry can of gas away from the nearest town. Nell is studying for university entrance exams; Eva is dancing in her glass-enclosed studio, hoping to win a spot at a ballet school.
But the lights never come back on, and their useful father (a sympathetic Callum Keith Rennie) is rapidly dispatched from the action by an accident on the property. This is one of the more ungainly and improbable scenes in the film but, generally, Rozema balances the symbolism of a doomsday scenario she has adapted from the popular 1996 novel by the American writer Jean Hegland and believable practical details about living without electricity or transportation as food supplies dwindle.
In that balance, she finds her richest material in the sibling relationship. Both Page and Wood hand in tough yet delicate performances as, over the course of a year, adversity shapes their characters. Page gently matures the girlish Nell, creating a figure of increasing psychological strength, while the more high-strung Eva, who cannot cope without music to dance to, falls into a despair that Wood makes desperately real.
For these women, men may offer support, escape or marauding violence, but in the end, both, through circumstances and by choice, stand alone. In that increasingly competent solitude, they make one last fateful decision as Rozema eschews all the standard tropes of the survivalist drama, from the dizzy heroics to the final relief and rescue. It was only after I watched Koneline that I understood the surprising conclusion of Into the Forest: It marks the moment the characters stop surviving and start living.
Koneline: our land beautiful opens June 10.
An earlier version of this article stated that a film was shot in redwood forests around Campbell River. In fact, there are no redwood forests in B.C.