Fair disclosure: I saw backcountry in September at the Calgary International Film Festival. It played there as a film made by a Canadian crew – including Alberta director Adam MacDonald – and because it was really, really good. My CIFF review follows the jump.
Brad and Jenn are off on a long weekend of enjoying nature – he’s taking her to see a treasured spot from his past – when they unwittingly encroach on the territory of black bear.
Based on a true story, Backcountry is Canadian director Adam MacDonald’s first feature. If quality counts, it won’t be his last.
Alex (Jeff Roop, Heartland) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym, Rookie Blue, Reaper) are a happy young couple set out for a long weekend in the wild, with Alex eager to show her a special spot that he visited frequently when he was younger. After renting a canoe from a park ranger (Nicholas Campbell) who also offers them a map – which Alex refuses, they eventually reach a great place to set up camp.
While Alex chops some firewood, a hiker happens upon their camp and Jenn invites him to stay for dinner – which seems fair, since he’s caught more fish than he’ll be able to eat himself. He seems a bit odd but heads off after dinner and the next morning Alex and Jenn are on their way again.
Remember the map? Well, they get lost; Jenn blows up at Alex and they settle in for a less than happy evening. Noises awaken them, but eventually cease, so they go back to sleep. Their tent bulges inward as a bear sniffs around.
Backcountry is constructed like a horror movie – which it kind of is. It begins with a happy pair of leads and some beautiful scenery – though the score varies between cheerful and ominous. The ranger is that creepy guy who warns you not to go there; the hiker, Brad (Eric Balfour, Haven), feels off but leaves – no harm, no foul.
The two fight; then things go sideways – and the really bad stuff begins to happen.
While there’s nothing new about Backcountry, it’s well-written and beautifully directed from a series of events that happed in the real world. The cinematography ranges from epic to intimate and, eventually, to claustrophobic. Sounds that once seemed beautiful become scary.
Roop and Peregrym both give terrific performances. They are the quintessential young, hip couple having an adventure – and as things start going wrong, they feel real in their discontent. Finally, when the bear appears, their terror and resolve feel right.
Using nature as a source of horror works better, for me, than some mythical boogeyman (though that kind of horror has its merits) and some events in the movies suggest mythological interpretations.
What makes Backcountry fresh is that it’s been long enough for the real story to have been mostly forgotten – and MacDonald’s version of the story capitalizes on the undercurrents of memory (it was on the news and that sort of thing remains in the back country of one’s mind) to add emphasis to the jolts and scares of the movie.
Backcountry is effective because it captures reality and builds it like a story – one where you can’t be sure of the ending. Like life.
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Photo courtesy of IFC Films