Writer/director Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry feature debut begins with a stark contrast. The opening shot is a slow tilt down woodland trees, with the buzzing of flies growing audibly louder, suggestive of something dead on the forest floor, never quite reached by the camera. Next we see Alex (Jeff Roop) emerging from an elevator into an underground carpark that is all brutalist concrete, with not a tree in sight – although the pair of backpacks that he carries and the outdoor clothing that he wears point to where he might be headed. He walks to the car where his girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) is waiting. She is as citified as they come – we later learn that she is a lawyer by profession, upholding civilisation against chaos, and her constant checking of her smartphone is an irritant in their relationship. Alex, on the other hand, spent his entire childhood backcountry, and his choice of job – landscaping – betokens a man with one foot still in the natural world. When the couple is shown in montage driving from the city to the ever wilder woodlands beyond, Jenn is a mere tourist, while Alex is going home. The song playing on their car radio – Dwight Twilley’s Lookin for the Magic – was last heard in Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), making its presence here an upbeat harbinger of horrors to come. The stench of death from the opening shot is, it seems, just around the corner.
The woods have of course been the locus of all manner of cinematic depravity, and the first half of Backcountry is spent teasing the viewer with the question of which form precisely the horror will take. The park ranger refers to “yahoos hanging around there, disrespecting everything”. Roop both looks and sounds a little like the young Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead (1981), and is shown using an axe to chop wood with gusto. There is a naked swim in a watering hole reminiscent of Friday the 13th‘s Crystal Lake. Christian Bielz’s frenetic handheld camerawork and Dev Singh’s impressionistic editing leave us constantly uncertain whether we are seeing the POV of a voyeuristic interloper. When Irish guide Brad (Eric Balfour) encroaches upon the couple’s campsite and joins them for dinner, his alpha-male aggression, his errant eye for Jenn, and the big hunting knife with which he guts fish for the fire, all come with palpable menace. And later, when Alex and Jenn are kept awake in their tent by noises and movements outside, it is impossible not to think of The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Willow Creek (2013). In the meantime, there are also signs that Alex and Jenn might just slip fatally through the cracks of their own dysfunctional relationship. Underperforming as a provider, Alex overcompensates with unconvincing displays of manliness, and gets both of them horribly lost, so that, with shades of the enigmatic nature’s revenger Long Weekend (1977), the unforgiving, autumnal terrain also serves as a psychological landscape in which this bickering twosome might just kill one another.
There is, as becomes clear in the film’s second half, something else out there threatening Jenn and Alex’s fragile wellbeing, and this low-key camping adventure cum back-to-basics relationship drama soon turns into a harrowing tale of suffering and survival – based very loosely on a true story. Here nature in its wildest form exposes the characters’ own true inner natures (and in one of their cases, internal organs) to full view. And here – as in Open Water (2003) and Black Water (2007) – nature is a hulking, roaring reality rather than a CGI imitation, brought into alarming contact with the two human characters via skilled wrangling and clever compositing. There is no denying the horror of these sequences, as the membrane of a tent’s canvas proves no protection in a face-off between vulnerable mortality and Darwinian ferocity. “We don’t have food in here,” protests Jenn, not realising that, to their hungry assailant, these two meaty morsels in their tent are no different from the other edible provisions suspended earlier in a sack outside (and duly devoured).
Backcountry certainly flirts with genre, its narrative blending elements of the creature feature and nature’s revenge with good old slash and dash. Yet the decision to keep things real works against this. Encounters with actual alpha predators tend to be over quickly and decisively, and given that the principal encounter here takes place an hour into the film’s 90-minute duration, the film reaches its climax too early. Accordingly, the naturalism that is the film’s best asset also leaves it lumbering and limping awkwardly to the finishing line. Here, with true plausibility, flight trumps fight, and the end of the film’s ‘running time’ becomes just that – but viewers in search of more genre-bound pleasures might conclude that they could bear a little more mauling.
© Anton Bitel