Writing and directing as well as starring, Tom Sainsbury's feature filmmaking debut is a gripping unease-in-the-woods thriller.
November 02, 2023
Arriving like breadcrumbs strewn across a woodland trail over the past seven years, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Coming Home in the Dark and now Loop Track keep leaving cinemagoers with a particular impression of New Zealand's wilderness: anything can await within its greenery. Even when The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies have seen Aotearoa double for Middle-Earth, NZ's forests don't grace as many flicks as Australia's vast outback — the Down Under go-to for unsettling landscapes — but big-screen visits amid its thickets are never about peaceful hikes. Sometimes, the bushland scenery beckons in an eventful comedy while on the run. Sometimes, colonial horrors are inescapable in its midst. And sometimes, its shapes and shadows inspire two possibilities: losing one's sanity or facing a nightmare.
Tom Sainsbury stars as Loop Track's quiet and frazzled protagonist Ian, as well as writes and directs the film — and for his on-screen alter ego, a blissful trek with eye-catching surroundings that could clear his mind would be a dream. More than that, he's hoping that it will be a cure for his otherwise unshakable malaise, as he searches for the solitude of nature to unwind, reset and relax. Walking solo, he's temporarily fleeing his everyday life. He's also visibly stressed by more than merely his heavy backpack before he sets off. As he tramps along dwarfed by his essentials, Ian won't be on his own for long. He can't escape his anxiety, either. As becomes evident with each and every step — in a straight line and in circles alike — there's also little that's soothing about this quickly complicated stroll.
With this self-funded horror-thriller, Sainsbury makes his feature filmmaking debut after two decades spent amassing credits in theatre, movies and TV — co-writing and co-starring in Wellington Paranormal among them, and also acting in everything from Super City, Pork Pie, Guns Akimbo and Lowdown Dirty Criminals to Baby Done, Nude Tuesday and Bad Behaviour. That comedy-heavy resume gives way to palpable suspense, plus a wander in the skin of someone who sees the world as a disappointment and a disaster because that's typically what greets him. Indeed, Ian's setbacks on his jaunt start almost instantly. Blisters plague his feet, then the annoyingly talkative and bossy Nicky (Hayden J Weal, Shortland Street) gloms onto him as they trudge. Next, when couple Austin (Tawanda Manyimo, Sweet Tooth) and Monica (Kate Simmonds, Inside) have already settled in at the first hut on the track, he's part of a quartet — and fraying.
Loop Track jitters with the worry and distress of a person who can't find a moment's relief, especially when actively seeking exactly that. It's a portrait of an unravelling when a man already approaching his limit keeps being saddled with more and more — or is it? Among Ian's flustered fretting, he's certain that something other than bark and leaves lurks in the trees. Given that he already stands out among the confident and carefree group that he's unwittingly been forced into, with social faux pas like cooking meat heightening his awkwardness, voicing those concerns just gets charges of paranoia slung Ian's way. But he's convinced he knows what he sees. In fact, Nicky and company's dismissals only make him more panicked, and yet also more sure that something is amiss. Meet Loop Track's juggling act, placing both its central figure and the audience between dripping psychological anguish and the prospect that Ian's unease not only sprouts but festers for good reason.
This is a movie that ferments and lingers itself. It's swiftly paced, but the disquiet that it inspires doesn't fade fast. Sainsbury aims for the dread and foreboding of Jaws mixed with the ever-present, almost-preternatural ominousness of It Follows — a trait that upcoming sequel They Follow will no doubt covet as well — and the hunter-and-prey terror of Predator. The budgets and settings differ, but there's also a streak of Triangle of Sadness-esque satire and black comedy to Loop Track as everything that can go wrong does on Ian's getaway, and while stuck with hardly ideal companions. A survivalist tale dwells amid the movie's repertoire, too; where The Grey had snow, Liam Neeson and wolves, this has foliage, Sainsbury and that niggling sensation that danger is perennially on the horizon.
Sainsbury's off-screen team know the brief: tension, tension and more tension. Cinematographer Milon Tesiram (The Adventures of Suzy Boon) roves evocatively along the path with Ian, Nicky, Austin and Monica, emphasising its expanse as well as its claustrophobia; it seems endless yet trapping by design. Editor Gabriel Lunte (who worked on Sui Generis, as Tesiram also did) is canny with his splicing and pacing, which is key in a feature that needs its characters to feel like they're lost yet doesn't meander. Composer Mike Newport (Double Parked) jangles the nerves with his echoing score, like he's hearing the rattling of Ian's brain and soul. All three, plus Sainsbury, also deftly handle a late shift — which could've been as frustrating as a pustule-blighted heel and a won't-stop-nattering stranger if it hadn't been handled exactly so.
As his own lead, Sainsbury paints a picture of relatable discomfort and social apprehension; empathising with Ian is easy, including when he's among his own biggest doubters. His is a reflective, pensive performance that bubbles with pressure, exasperation and yearning — to be free from daily woes and mounting new ones, to be believed and to be accepted. Weal plays abrasively chatty with an everyone-knows-this-guy vibe (because everyone does know at least one), and Simmonds and Manyimo seesaw between kindly and cautious as the moment calls for. Aided by this well-cast troupe's efforts, Loop Track demands attention — and, just when you always thought it was safe to go trekking through NZ's wilderness, will have audiences thinking twice about their next hike.
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