“Open Water in the woods” sounds like an accurate logline for Scream Factory’s latest IFC Midnight release Backcountry, a primal, gripping, realistic survival thriller that is as much about the will to survive and the terror in the wilderness as it is about a relationship being taken to the next step. It’s also based on a true story, but by now, that claim holds little water. Making his feature directorial debut, writer-director Adam MacDonald is confident enough to trust his story by never injecting any contrivances or added peril (i.e. lecherous mountain men, poisonous snakes, etc.) and keeping things tight and simple. He forecasts what is to come with an opening shot of the seemingly peaceful woods and then pans down, as we hear buzzing flies, before cutting to see if the carcass is animal or human. The harrowing tone is set and we’re off.
Alex (Jeff Roop) can’t wait to take game lawyer girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) camping in the Canadian wilderness and show her Blackfoot Trail. Once they arrive, she promises to put away her Blackberry in her pack and even comes prepared with bear spray, which Alex scoffs at and insists she won’t need it (“We’ll be lucky to see anything bigger than a chipmunk”). When Alex goes to collect some more firewood, he comes back to Jenn talking to vaguely flirtatious Irish backpacker Brad (Eric Balfour) and foolishly invites him for dinner at their campsite. Alex isn’t too happy about the idea, nor is he too subtle about it in front of Brad. After their dinner and a confrontation, Brad leaves, but he is the least of Alex and Jenn’s problems when they get lost. Alex’s overconfidence of the hiking spot he hasn’t visited since high school and refusal to take the map a park ranger offers him turns into rotten luck for the couple. Little does Alex know that they’re in black bear country.
When we first meet the outdoorsy Alex and urban-living Jenn, they are so darn likable that when their lives are put in danger, we are able to really care. It’s devastating to think that a camping trip, made special by Alex’s intention of proposing to Jenn, will have grave results. It is imperative that a film like this has verisimilitude, and fortunately, Jeff Roop (Adam MacDonald’s cousin) and Missy Peregrym (2006’s gymnastics comedy Stick It) are up to the challenge. They believably act like a real couple who, when faced with the situation of getting lost, become angry with one another and make hurtful remarks but still love one another. Though Peregrym seems too innately tough to be the victim, she is put through the veritable wringer and credibly sells Jenn being out of her element before becoming resourceful, while Roop is very good, too, in showing his girlfriend the way of the woods. Once they get lost and are endangered by the black bear, they both manage emotional depth and individual inner strength to go on. Eric Balfour poses a menacing threat in his brief pitstop as Brad, but the tension involved with Brad and Alex only goes to show that being in a bear’s neck of the woods is far more dangerous.
Backcountry is never some cheesy, over-the-top creature feature about a CG’d, genetically enhanced animal that you’d find any day on the Syfy channel, and it’s all the more character-driven, more authentic, and much more effective because of it. It builds slowly, but surely, by observing Alex and Jenn as a couple and saving the unsparing final half-hour to become more of a taut, rattling, visceral experience. When the bear attacks, director Adam MacDonald and cinematographer Christian Bielz simultaneously shows and leaves enough to the imagination, never dulling the intensely savage brutality of a bear attack. MacDonald also potently uses sound and jittery camera movements as needed. As Jenn runs from the bear, the jostling camera is with her, conveying her disorientation about what has just been taken from her. When she bangs her head, we not only hear the high-pitched ringing but feel her pain. If you’re someone who unquestionably squirms at the sight of bones being out where they shouldn’t be, Backcountry might not thrill you as much as wreck you. Then again, such a visceral, panicky response is hard to come by and MacDonald accomplishes that in spades. As a piece of advice, just stay out of the woods.
Backcountry is now available on Blu-ray via Scream Factory