Director: Adam MacDonald
Cast: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, Nicholas Campbell
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 3/20/15 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 19, 2015
Backcountry spends most of its running time serving as an efficient examination of a relationship under duress, and then a black bear appears. Let's just say that the couple's problems don't look so bad when they're pursued by a bear with no obvious path of exit.
It takes a long time for even the suggestion of the bear to make it on screen in writer/director Adam MacDonald's debut feature, but that only makes the payoff more unexpectedly terrifying. Yes, the mention of a predatory bear will likely give anyone reading this review a certain set of expectations for the film, but as vital as the bear is to the climax, it's best to try to put the animal out of your mind when going into the film. Yes, that will be difficult, but if one goes into the film expecting a non-stop man-vs.-nature chase scenario, one will inevitability leave disappointed.
This isn't about the bear. This is a film about two people who get in way over their heads in thinking they know nature and each other, only to learn that they know very little of either. The bear is just a definitive reminder of that fact.
The couple is Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop), and the film starts with them driving from the city to the countryside in a montage that establishes they are comfortable with each other—enough to have a little inside joke about a song he loves and she hates, moments of silence without feeling obligated to talk, and, in general, enough patience to last a lengthy road trip without getting into a serious fight over the little things. If one ever feels the desire to test the potential endurance of a romance, spend hours cramped inside a car with your beloved, and see how that goes. Jenn and Alex get bonus points for potential longevity for being able to assemble a tent together without throwing any of the parts into the woods or at each other.
Alex has been to this park "many times." The ranger (Nicholas Campbell) at the entrance asks if he wants a map because most people get lost near the end of the season when the weather turns without warning. "Most people," Alex replies.
His plan is to take Jenn off the well-beaten path to a remote trail that ends at a beautiful lake. We get an idea of what his plan really is, and we also trust that anyone who can describe this place in such loving detail knows what he's doing. We're wrong on one count.
That's half of the dynamic of this relationship. There's a lot of misplaced trust in Alex on Jenn's part. She's sure he knows what he's doing. She's certain he knows the way. She's confident that he's at least enough of a rugged, out-doors type. We get little hints that he might not be any of these things—dropping a canoe on his toe and stubbornly determining that he'll "walk it off," leaving an ax behind in the woods, insisting that they skinny dip in a waterhole, being a little too liberal with the water supply. At a key moment atop a cliff with no view of a lake of any sort, any trust Jenn may have had in him comes to an end.
The other half of the dynamic is Alex's unwarranted distrust of Jenn. He laughs at her bear spray. He mocks her for bringing a road flare. He scolds her for typing on her cellphone before they start their expedition, and his suspicion that she won't be able to stay off the phone while they're hiking ultimately leads to huge, possibly fatal error in judgment.
When a genuinely rugged woodsman with an Irish brogue named Brad (Eric Balfour) arrives at their campsite, Alex automatically assumes that he's trouble—or maybe a threat to his relationship. Jenn thinks the stranger is trustworthy, and despite his rather boorish behavior, Brad very well could be. He at least could have been someone who would be able to report where they are in case of trouble. Instead, Alex sows the seeds of doubt, and we and they never get to determine what kind of man this stranger truly is. There's all of this mistrust, but when matters become desperate, Jenn is the one with the cool head, the calm demeanor, and the common sense to actually devise solutions, no matter how temporary.
MacDonald's screenplay is filled with such little details about these characters and their relationship, and he drops them like little breadcrumbs throughout the film. When that pivotal moment of disappointment that quickly shifts to horror arrives, we can retrace the steps that led them there—the uncertainty, the subtle hints of discontent with a job, the second-guessing about choices along the way. When Jenn explodes in a fit of rage, we know exactly from where she's coming.
After all of this, yes, there's the bear. After the patience with which MacDonald establishes these characters, it's little surprise that the film's ultimate confrontation with nature focuses on the mounting dread, with lengthy shots inside a tent as the rhythmic, musical grinding on the soundtrack is gradually punctuated by heavy breathing and grunts and a shadow from the outside become a tangible threat of sharp claws and pointed teeth. The editing and sound design here replicate psychological shock more than anything else—quick shots of pouring blood, hanging flesh, and a gaping maw against the hollow echo of barely-heard screams.
We know and sympathize with these characters, so it's a doubly horrifying sequence. It's not just terror for its own sake. Backcountry earns it.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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