BACKCOUNTRY Review | TIFF 2014

     September 9, 2014

backcountry-review

I already think twice about going into the ocean thanks to Open Water and now I’ll have the same problem with camping courtesy of Adam MacDonald’s disturbingly brilliant feature directorial debut, Backcountry.  We get a “based on a true story” title card a few minutes in and the film honors it to the fullest.  Everything from the secluded setting to the characters to their decision-making process feels so authentic that it’ll leave you with the impression that it could happen to anyone.  Good thing I’ve got a trip to the woods coming up in a week, right?  (Really.)

Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop lead as Jenn and Alex.  She’s a super serious lawyer who’s glued to her Blackberry and he’s determined to give her a nice break by having her do one of his favorite things, go on a camping trip.  But not just any camping trip.  Alex wants to take Jenn to a particularly special spot, a lake on the secluded Blackfoot Trail.

Before we even get to the point when it all goes wrong, it’s worth noting that Backcountry is a big winner the second it starts.  And I mean literally the second it starts.  Rather than introduce us to the main characters right off the bat, MacDonald chooses to go with a simple shot of a peaceful wooded setting that oh-so slowly makes its way down towards the ground.  We never get a clear shot of what’s down there, but the closer we get, the more flies invade the frame, instantly setting the eerie tone for the entire film.

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Peregrym and Roop take it from there.  They come across as a nice, normal couple and are effortless to connect with.  At one point, it’s so clear that Alex wants to come right out and say something when he catches Jenn using her phone at the start of the trip and who can’t relate to that scenario?  However, instead, he distracts her with a joke.  It’s a brief moment, but it’s quite charming and says a lot about who he is.  Soon thereafter we get another quick but unforgettable Backcountry nuance, the film’s title card, which abruptly cuts off an especially jovial car ride sing-along.

The unease builds as the pair hops in their canoe and sets off to start their trek.  There are warning signs all over the place that range from subtle hints to rather familiar middle-of-nowhere horror movie tropes.  Alex passes on taking a map, they have an especially unnerving encounter with a solo hiker (Eric Balfour), Alex hurts his foot and so on, but MacDonald still manages to maintain a rather elegant descent into pure chaos by balancing the more foreboding moments with others that put the focus on Jenn and Alex’s relationship and what makes it special.

But when things take a turn for the worst, boy do they.  Unless you’re going into Backcountry totally blind, you know Jenn and Alex aren’t making it back to that canoe without running into some serious trouble, but nothing can prepare you for what they wind up experiencing.  I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for gore, but admittedly, what bears are capable of did make me squirm.

backcountry-missy-peregrym

Backcountry is roughly an hour of build-up and then a rip-roaring 30 minutes of sheer terror, but it isn’t a slow burn that makes a desperate attempt to make an impression in the final act of the film.  That last half hour only is what it is because of all the character development and memorable moments you experience before.  This is a movie about a bear attack.  Knowing that is bound to inform everything that happens before the leads have even the mildest encounter with one, but it works the other way around as well.  Jenn and Alex both have their issues and, really, this whole thing is totally Alex’s fault to begin with, but Peregrym and Roop make such a fun, engaging and likable pair that that informs the more brutal moments as well.

That combination is what makes Backcountry such an exhilarating and satisfying experience.  The film in no way leans on its alluring core concept.  If that were the case, you’d walk out of it having seen the “holy sh*t” moment and then be totally done with it.  Instead, MacDonald gives you two characters that you can connect to, delivers such a comprehensive sense of who they are and why they’re together and then threatens to tear it all apart.  It’s a scenario you’ll be thinking about well after seeing the film and it’ll also spark a sick curiosity that’ll make you eager to see it again as well.

Grade: A-

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