As a film critic and therefore a confirmed indoor kid, I have a particular fondness for nature survival horror films. When you freak out over inconsistent internet and vending machine access, the concept of being trapped in the wilderness tends to seems a little extra terrifying. Even putting aside personal preference, there’s no denying what first time writer/director Adam MacDonald has accomplished in ‘Backcountry’. You might not be aware that you’ve been waiting for a definitive man-versus-bear horror flick, but you just got one.
Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop play the central couple Jenn and Alex, and they’re about to get into heaps of trouble. She’s a lawyer perpetually attached to her cell phone. He’s a layabout of sorts who’s convinced that he’s a natural in the wilderness even though it’s been a long time since he stretched those muscles. They head out for a big camping weekend where Alex can show the missus his nature-man skills.
After dismissively refusing a map from the local ranger and wandering off course following an emasculating encounter with a tour guide, the couple gets lost and things just keep getting worse. They have nothing but his faded memories of childhood hikes to right their course and supplies are dwindling fast. It’s one of those equally frustrating and suspenseful viewing experiences as stupidity and genuine danger mix in a setting that quickly transforms from a scenic vacation spot into a labyrinthine nightmare. Then there’s the unfortunate matter of entering bear country and attracting an unwanted third party to their camping trip.
MacDonald wisely takes his time building up tension to a fever pitch. Things feel off from the get-go, even during the car journey to the campsite when the audience is introduced to supplies and bear-repellents that clearly won’t be effective. The director and his talented cinematographer Christian Bielz gradually shift from expansive beauty shots to tightly confined and eerily suspenseful compositions. The talented central duo of actors effectively follow an arc of wide-eyed fun to sunken-eyed dread, taking their broadly identifiable characters and shrinking them down into shrivelling adult children uncertain of what to do. Flirting turns to bickering, which then turns to panic. Then it’s bear time.
Taking some pointers from ‘Jaws’ (which to be fair, all filmmakers should do), MacDonald doesn’t show the bear at first. He plays with shadows and sound effects and animal-corpse-strewn nests. When we finally see the big guy, it’s an actual animal, which adds a lot. When it inevitably strikes, the filmmakers abandon their careful compositions for handheld confusion and carnage, mixing real animal footage with what I assume (or at least hope) is a fantastic bear puppet. The use of shaky-cam is thankfully never excessive or frustrating. Instead, it adds a sense of urgency and prevents viewers from dwelling on images they’ll wish they hadn’t seen. MacDonald doesn’t hold back on gore, but he’s not excessive either. Everything in the movie is calculated to build to something horrific and then deliver with maximum impact. It works. ‘Backcountry’ is indeed nerve-rattlingly tense and gag-inducing in all the right ways.
If there’s criticism to be laid onto ‘Backcountry’, the film will perhaps be too simple and specific for some viewers. If you don’t want to see a nasty nature survival horror movie, it’s tough going. (Get ready to be deeply irritated by stupid and life-threatening decision making.) Likewise, the movie has very little in the way of subtext. This is a straight-ahead exercise in dread and jagged nerves that works entirely on the surface, yet delivers the goods. MacDonald has delivered a rock solid exercise in survival horror grounded by some excellent performances (especially from Peregrym) and featuring some beautiful location work and genuinely grisly payoffs (…must resist replacing “grisly” with “grizzly”).
For those who enjoy getting the willies from a tale of a trip into nature gone about as wrong as possible, ‘Backcountry’ demands to be hunted down and devoured. Just don’t watch it before any sort of camping or cottage trip unless you enjoy panic attacks.