Dir: Adam MacDonald
IFC Films, 2014, Canada
Starring: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, Nicolas Campbell
If you go down to the woods today – don’t.
Is there really a scarier death imaginable than being torn to pieces and eaten by a wild animal? Probably not. Hence, stories in which humans are pursued by the more intimidating members of the animal kingdom are innately granted the capacity to thrill audiences like no stories featuring more implausible threats could. At least when they are told well, that is. Animals have no grasp on the concept of being evil or of remorse; their attacks on humans are often instinctive and defensive, unclouded by morality or emotion and cannot be prevented by any form of plea. Despite Quint labelling the shark in Jaws (1975) a “bad fish”, it is really only a hungry and territorial one when you stop to think (did I actually just sympathise with a fictional shark? One that ate a dog, no less?). Having that been said, Backcountry – in which the fearsome beast is a big Black Bear – is the most viscerally intense film I’ve seen this year, almost by default.
Although my response to the film could partially be credited to a degree of personal bear-phobia – or ursaphobia, apparently – that I had arbitrarily brought to the fore (originating largely from an overwrought but compulsive survival film called The Edge  with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin), the slow-burning script and perceptive capturing of the vulnerability of being lost in the great outdoors is what also allows Adam MacDonald’s directorial debut to be convincing and frightening.
The modest premise is as straightforward as can be: a young, peppy couple, Jenn and Alex (Peregrym and Roop, respectively), venture into the Canadian backcountry for a camping trip. They soon find themselves lost in the labyrinth of towering forestry à la The Blair Witch Project (1999) without a phone, a compass or map – made worse by something bestial lurking outside their camp whilst they sleep that leaves eviscerated deer carcasses amongst the foliage. Alex’s earlier proclamation that they’re “not gonna see anything bigger than a chipmunk” is now beginning to look frightfully erroneous. But before events go decidedly Grizzly (1976) for the couple, the film briefly detours into quietly disturbing Deliverance (1972) territory as they have to contend with a supposed-wilderness guide, Brad (Balfour), who takes pleasure in attempting to emasculate Alex with passive-aggressive insinuations.
Brad and Alex’s mental sparring is endemic in the first half of the film’s apparent meditation on contemporary masculinity and cultivated societies venturing into uncultivated places. The reason for Alex and Jenn’s escapade into this part of the Canadian wilderness, Alex’s idyllic childhood retreat, is that he is planning on proposing to her. His bold behaviour in his refusal to bring a map, boasting of his camping skills and coercing Jenn into skinny-dipping rings of a forced mask of bravado he has adopted to impress her before the big surprise. Only when the rugged Brad appears with a bunch of freshly-caught Trout in hand and an Irish brogue is Alex’s attempts at virility evidently compromised. In this capacity, (and considering the film’s traumatic later events) the film seems to be hinting that cultivated city-folk that are conditioned by technology are effectively brought down to size by the open wilderness and are unequipped to deal with any potential threat that it may bring – be it man or animal. Although this theme had potential, in the grand scheme of Backcountry it seemed rather ephemeral and I was struggling to conclude anything beyond what films like Deliverance or Into the Wild (2007) had already explored.
However, the second half of the film sees the tension levels take a very steep incline as the couple are forced to spend more nights in the forest than they had originally planned after finding themselves lost in it. They are often shot conversing by their campfire at night, back-dropped by the infinite darkness of the forest behind them in which anything could be lurking. The subtle technique of allowing the camera to occasionally drift uncomfortably from the actors, thus enabling the blackness to fill more of the background in these particular scenes, is almost distractingly effective. I found myself struggling to keep up with the characters’ actions and words as I was too preoccupied with making sure nothing as much as a twig moved in the void behind them.
Then, finally, there’s the bear.
To divulge or hint at exactly when the bear first attacks would obviously be a disservice to the film, even if it was not one of the most horrifying and ultimately devastating animal attacks that I’ve ever seen onscreen, which it is. It’s a drawn-out scene of horrific suffering with flashes of gore that adequately (but non-gratuitously) reveal the amount of bodily carnage that is taking place – just enough for you to refrain from visiting Canada anytime in the next decade.
Predominantly a two-hander, the first hour of Backcountry is frequently and effectively unnerving – albeit, unfulfilling in its allegorical attempts – and is bolstered by Peregrym’s and Roop’s fine performances. The final third of the film however, in which very little is actually spoken, proves to be the most effective and anxiety-provoking sequence as it boils down to pure chase and survival with the bear never too far beyond the frame. Yet as terrifying and as relentless as the bear appears, the film seems to reinforce the perspective of how indifferent animals are to humans and how out of place people are in this part of the world. This notion is emphasised towards the end as we see one of the characters – who is close to dying – reach out to a deer hoping that it will miraculously offer some form of assistance. Instead, it just turns and runs off. By the same token, the deer is just as unsympathetic as the bear. Lesson being (if ever it needed to be stressed): do not walk into a bear’s house unless you want to be cleaned up with a sponge later on.
Note: Astonishingly, Backcountry has not been given a theatrical release in the UK, but it is now available on DVD under it’s UK title Blackfoot Trail. Check it out!
– Liam Hathaway