Writer-director Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry is an intense thriller that may make you permanently postpone the camping trip in the woods you were planning on taking. If Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man didn’t drive home the fact that bears in the wild are not our friends, then Backcountry will definitely get the point across.
The film follows a young couple who decide to spend what they believe will be a romantic weekend in the woods. It’s off-season and they’re not anticipating running into many other hikers, and so when a strange man (Eric Balfour) wanders into their camp armed with a large knife and offering up fish to fry, they’re startled and made suddenly aware of the area’s remoteness. Jenn (Missy Peregrym), the more trusting of the two, invites him to stay for dinner while Alex (Jeff Roop) is wary and obviously wishing he’d come better prepared for potentially dangerous encounters.
The following morning Jenn and Alex venture further into the woods, looking for a specific camping spot Alex fondly remembers from his childhood visits to the area. Alex refused to accept a map from the park ranger when they checked in – insert your favorite ‘men not wanting to ask for directions’ comment here – and he deliberately hid Jenn’s cell phone in the trunk of their car without her knowledge before they set out on their hike. It’s therefore unsurprising when the couple end up lost and wandering in circles. Jenn wasn’t wholeheartedly into the camping adventure the way Alex was from the get-go, and becoming lost in the wild only serves to reinforce her initial uneasiness about the short vacation.
Unfortunately, Alex’s stubbornness mixed with his desire to share his childhood love for a specific remote spot in the wilderness puts the couple in grave danger as they unknowingly place themselves in the middle of bear country.
MacDonald made smart casting choices with his two leads as the film rests squarely on Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop’s shoulders. They both do terrific jobs of making the audience care about this couple who discover they’re in way over their heads when they take a trip into the Canadian wilds. It’s easy to buy Peregrym and Roop as a couple, and it doesn’t take any suspension of belief to connect with (but hopefully not relate to) their predicament. The film is realistic, and at times grotesque, and always believable thanks to the smart script, skilled direction, and Peregrym and Roop’s intense performances.
MacDonald’s Backcountry is alternately frustrating and terrifying, but the frustration doesn’t come from any flaws in the script. It comes from understanding this couple, knowing people just like them, and wanting to warn them all of their bad decisions are going to come back to bite them in the butt. These aren’t your normal horror movie idiots who run mindlessly full steam ahead into a potentially dangerous situation. No, Jenn and Alex are flawed, three-dimensional characters who make legitimate mistakes. And while they do break a few rules of camping, there are real reasons behind the decisions they make.
What’s most satisfying about Backcountry is how writer/director MacDonald is able to keep up the level of suspense for most of the film, allowing the tension to build up before the actual introduction of a bear into the story. There’s nothing rushed about the way the story unspools, and time is given to allow Jenn and Alex to become characters the audience genuinely cares about before the bear makes an appearance. Twigs snap and you just know that bear is lurking somewhere out of frame, watching Jenn and Alex as they get further away from anyone who can help. And when the bear does arrive, the tension level ratchets up and it’s impossible to look away from the screen.
Running time: 92 minutes
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