Backtrace is a story of memory, remembrance, and pain. But mostly it is a film about losing things we haven’t even appreciated losing.
When a trio of bank robbers go to meet the inside men who planned it all, a shoot-out occurs. Two of the robbers lay dead. The third, Donovan MacDonald (Matthew Modine), has suffered a severe brain injury, causing him to lose all memories before being shot. Seven years later, MacDonald is still in a locked mental hospital. He hasn’t been tried because he still can’t remember anything from before he got there.
A new inmate named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) suggests that he can help him escape. Along with a nurse named Erin (Meadow Williams) and a guard named Farren (Tylor Olson), he manages to get smuggled out of prison. The reason? He’s the only one who might remember where they hid $15,000,000. Erin injects him with an experimental drug that might bring back his memories. The side effects can be severe, but they are anxious to find the cash.
The escape brings the case back into the news and to the attention of police Detective Sykes (Sylvester Stallone) and FBI agent Franks (Christopher McDonald). The two don’t seem to like or trust each other and are clearly working at cross purposes. As bits of memories come back to MacDonald, he and those with him must try to piece together the few clues they have. Meanwhile the police are getting closer.
There are a couple of twists that take place, neither terribly earthshattering. So the story plays out as an action thriller with very little credibility. In fact, the thing that is most important for MacDonald to remember (which isn’t the money) gets very little attention. It is that discovery that provides the real sense of loss in his life.
Around the time of the end of the film, the thought that came to mind was, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9: 25, NRSV). As the end plays out, we should wonder about what MacDonald has gained (and lost) that is truly important. The film fails to take any of the characters deeper into questions of meaning or to ponder the relative value of the things that have been lost and found.