Written & Directed by Durden Godfrey
Starring Benjamin Hornsby, Daniel Miller and Mel Heflin
Indie Film Review by Seamus Conlon
The repeated quotes from and references to Walden’s ‘Thoreau’ throughout Never Go Back make explicit the film’s already fairly overt central theme: a neo-Romantic return to nature and withdrawal from the suffocating and arbitrary customs of society. In the opening sequences of the film we are subjected to characters spouting cringe-worthy platitudes along the lines of ‘society is bullshit’ before they enter back into the state of nature. It seems from the outset that the film will provide a predictable didactic narrative about the naivety of Romantic nature-worship, about who hippy-ish optimists should be careful what they wish for, and that life in the state of nature is a Hobbesian hell of brutality compared with the dull safety net of society. To an extent Never Go Back does (appropriately) provide this narrative, but there is intelligent nuance, and ambiguity.
Benjamin Hornsby and Daniel Miller play a father and son, respectively, who, responding to the trauma of the death of a family matriarch, decide to live as foragers in the woods as a posthumous tribute to her preference for nature over society. The son, Oliver, seems particularly wayward and depressive, and buys marijuana on the day of his mother’s funeral – that his dealer gives him a discount as commiseration for his loss brings a rare smile to Oliver’s face. The father, Dave, seems more circumspect and knowing than his rather blinkered son. Oliver is driven by blind emotion in the wake of his mother’s death to give up on his place in society and re-create Thoreau’s famed experiment in solitary, natural life, and fails to see how the experiment could deliver anything less than utopian bliss. Dave passively goes along with Oliver’s plans, but he knows the turbulences ahead.
The early section of Never Go Back, set in civilization before the attempted return to nature, are clumsy, dull, lacking in visual or technical imagination. Daniel Miller plays Oliver as monotonous and tiresome, and sadly this doesn’t change much until the end of the film. Mel Heflin as the remembered mother is so creepy as to appear less like a recognisable human being than as a hallucination or an apparition – and at one point in the film she does take on this manifestation. Of the major roles, Benjamin Hornsby the one truly naturalistic and consistently endearing performance.
But as the attempt to live in the state of nature unravels, and as Oliver becomes first disillusioned and then reconciled to the torments of his new pastoral existence, we have to listen to less stale catchphrases about evil society and more interesting experiments with sound design on behalf of the filmmakers, less plod-along scenes of daily life and more scenes of natural beauty fused with technical experiment. Not all of director Durden Godfrey’s attempts to visually dramatize Oliver’s inner turmoil work – a short sequence involving a vision of his dead mother in the works is slightly clichéd – but the film is certainly enriched by its attempts to represent the inward journey into Oliver’s soul that accompanies the journey into the heart of the forest.