There’s a long-standing tradition of the woods being a scary and threatening place. But for two recent thrillers that had their world premieres at Fantastic Fest, the woods provide less of an ominous threat than a background for dramas involving characters with secrets to keep.
Marc Schölermann’s Bark is technically set in North America, but it was actuality filmed in Northern Germany). The film concerns Nolan Bentley (Michael Weston), who awakens tied to a tree in the middle of the forest. He has no memory of how he got there or why he’s tied up…not even when an Outdoorsman (A.J. Buckley) sets up a tent nearby and refuses to untie him.
The forest in Bark is as much of a character as the two men locked in a battle of wills. The film opens with extreme close-ups of the insect life teeming in the lush foliage, presenting it as an ecosystem in its own right. Nolan is clearly out of his depth: his expensive clothes immediately place him in unfamiliar surroundings, though his survival instincts are generally solid. He tries to eat bark, secure water from a nearby fern using his bare foot, and routinely stretches his legs and arms to keep the circulation moving.
As the hours turn to days, however, the one thing Nolan can’t figure out is the reason behind his imprisonment. It’s clear The Outdoorsman has an agenda because he tries to prompt Nolan’s memory and clues emerge as the narrative progresses, including a name on the handle of a knife and details from Nolan’s past that The Outdoorsman seems to know.
In addition to a few flashbacks to help establish context and lead into the climax, there are also red herrings. Could protests against the destruction of the forest be a factor? Or perhaps Nolan’s history of irresponsible driving?
The truth is revealed at film’s end, in a gentle twist that reframes the narrative and the audience’s empathy for Nolan. It mostly works, paying off what is essentially a lushly photographed two-hander that could work just as easily as a play or a Twilight Zone morality lesson.
In some ways Bark is a relatively straigthforward film: you get what the logline promises. It’s still a trip worth taking. 4/5
Many of the same characteristics apply to Paweł Borowski’s Mushrooms, a Polish film that follows an elderly woman (Maria Maj) foraging for mushrooms who stumbles upon a pair of young people in the middle of the woods. The man (Jędrzej Bigosiński) and woman (Paulina Walendziak) are dressed as a prince and princess, but they play off their attire as part of a drinking game gone wrong. As the man, who does most of the talking, explains, they were out with friends, passed out first, and their friends left them disoriented in the woods without money or identification.
Naturally the old woman is suspicious of this story, but upon seeing that the young woman has a sprained ankle, she begrudgingly agrees to help them. By this point in Mushrooms, her knowledge of the flora is evident, so it’s hardly surprising when she quickly builds a healing brace using tree bark and assorted plants.
Mushrooms is divided into nine chapters, with each segment capturing either a significant interaction, portion of time, or both. Time itself is a character in the film considering the action is set at an undisclosed time (the young couple’s costumes, in particularly, are indiscriminately out of time and lend themselves to fairytale).
The old woman agrees to help the couple by leading them through the forest to her home, though it’s clear from her meandering pace as much as their persistent questions that neither party entirely trusts the other.
Therein lies the appeal of Mushrooms which could also easily be a play with a shifting forest back drop. Dialogue heavy, with virtually no violence but plenty of mystery, the film subsists by drawing out audience questions about what is going on and who is telling the truth.
The other delight is anticipating what forest elements will come back and in what capacity. At one point the old woman discovers an animal trap that she tosses out of harms way. In another she warns the young man from stepping through a spider web. And given the name of the film, a poisonous mushroom is surely in play.
The fact that Mushrooms is gorgeously shot makes up for its somewhat slower pace. There are plenty of dimensions to the forest, which is both often familiar looking and simultaneously foreign. This sense of displacement and recognition helps build anticipation and uncertainty about whether the trio is actually making progress or if they’re going in circles.
All of this leads to Mushrooms final reveal, which elaborates on the true identity of the costumed pair and (once again) reframes the audience’s allegiance. Unlike other twist films such as Bark, however, this ending will likely be more contentious, if only because it is also more confronting. 4/5
Ultimately both Bark and Mushrooms are gorgeous, intimate forest-set twist/reveal thrillers that are well worth seeking out. Just be prepared to second guess what you’ve seen and how you feel!
Bark and Mushrooms both had their world premieres at Fantastic Fest 2023