Film Review – Backcountry
And people wonder why I don’t go camping.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature. Yes, being out in the wilderness offers beautiful and serene sights. On the flipside, there’s poison ivy, rough terrain, and God knows what kind of animal life roaming around. I don’t mind going on an occasional excursion with friends, as long as we stay within eyesight of the main road.
Maybe somebody should have told that to the main characters of director Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry (2014). What starts off as a romantic getaway for a couple of lovebirds, turns into a hellish fight for survival. These nature-run-a-muck, survivalist films have the same basic principal: humans that don’t respect nature facing the consequences of their reckless behavior. No matter how much Roy Scheider’s Brody tried to warn people in Jaws (1975), there wouldn’t be much excitement if no one went in the water. The same can be said here.
Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are lovers looking to spend a few days deep in the Canadian woods. On the surface, they seem like a happy couple. But the screenplay (by MacDonald) shows problems seeping through the cracks. Jenn is an attorney, Alex works in landscaping. He likes to be outdoors, boasting how he grew up in these same woods and knowing it like the back of his hand. She’s a city girl who hasn’t had the same kind of experience. While it’s never said out loud, we can gather that this trip is a kind of test to see if their relationship is worth fighting for.
One of MacDonald’s strengths is developing the dynamic between Alex and Jenn, even as they go through the familiar machinations of the horror/thriller genre. Jeff Roop and Missy Peregrym’s performances work authentically with each other. We see the full range of their emotions: their frustration with the other is on full display just as much as their admiration and love. Peregrym takes center stage as the narrative drives forward. She expresses her vulnerability as well as her inner strength, and in a nice touch toward the latter half, her deep devotion to Alex.
The direction and cinematography (by Christian Bielz) captures the forest in washed out grays, greens, and blues. It’s cold and wet, and there’s always an overcast lingering above. Although the execution is efficient in telling this story, the writing falls prey to some of the tropes of the genre. Alex and Jenn appear to be two smart people, yet their actions betray their personalities. Alex exhibits the same kind of macho “I can do everything on my own” way of thinking that has permeated these films for decades. Never relying on a map, taking a short cut instead of sticking to the main path, etc. His idiotic posturing to convince Jenn (and/or himself) of his competence is antiquated at best. For a guy who claims he grew up in these woods, Alex comes off looking like a buffoon.
There’s an opportunity for MacDonald to examine the roles of men and women in extreme peril, but a lot of that takes a backseat when the terror starts. It doesn’t come right away though. MacDonald takes quite a bit of time to get to the thrills. A scene early on has the two encountering a stranger named Brad (Eric Balfour), and their fireside chat elicits some uneasiness and hand wringing. But that operates as a mere red herring, as we find the true danger to our protagonists is the forest itself, as well as a gigantic, hungry bear.
For a production this small (it was shot in 16 days) MacDonald and his crew did an exceptional job of portraying the wild bear. Some sequences rely more on sound effects and shadow (such as when the bear sniffs around their tent as the two are asleep), but there are shots where we can clearly see a real-life bear making its way closer to them. I don’t know if this was a trained animal or if the editing somehow made it appear so, but the threat of the bear was palpable. Mixed with the reaction shots of Peregrym and Roop, the scares had a realistic quality to them.
MacDonald switches gears a bit once the bear enters. What starts off slow and subtle ramps up to frenetic. The cinematography incorporates the frequently used shaking cam approach to generate energy. For the most part it works, although at times it was obvious that it was used to mask the coherence of the bear attacks. We also have shots of brutal and bloody gore. I was less interested in these moments, since the film did such a good job with everything the came before it. I was much more invested in the suspense building than the payoff.
Backcountry is a solid example of low budget filmmaking that can make something out of very little. Although the last third felt a bit shallow, the first two thirds were excellent in establishing character and anxiety. Yes, some really bad (and clichéd) decisions were made to put Alex and Jenn in this position, but how they connect to get through it is the true highlight. In his feature length debut, Adam MacDonald shows skill in building suspense and highlighting character development. And Missy Peregrym shows a lot promise as an actress. I hope to see more of both sometime down the line.