Backcountry opens in a way that will conjure up strong memories of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games for those who have seen it (either versions since they are virtually identical). We see a tranquil scene of domesticity as a young and in love couple drive down the road, the camera, outside the car, gives them a knowing yet removed stare well aware that things about to get a lot, lot worse for them. But here director Adam MacDonald improves upon the old guard’s outline; his touch is lighter, the humor is actually funny and the film that follows is more sadistic (yes, I said it) and doesn’t view boring its audience as a virtue. The couple in question, Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym), are headed out to the Canadian wilderness to spend some quality time with themselves and Mother Nature. He has ulterior motives and a vastly overrated sense of his survival instincts but his heart is in the right place as they set off to find Blackfoot Trails and relive a part of his childhood.
Even if you know nothing about this going in it is hard to miss the IFC Midnight logo that flashes before the opening frame which tips us off that we are most likely headed down a disturbing path. Our heroes find themselves on that path mainly due to Alex’s male bravado which he flaunts at every turn. Oh really, Black Foot Trails is closed for the season? That ain’t no thing for a seasoned vet such as himself. Phones? Maps? Bear Spray? Mere toys that are totally irrelevant when hiking with somebody so experienced. The scenes in which he mocks Jenn for wanting to, you know, be safe out there overly paint him as a buffoon which weakens the character and also shows MacDonald’s hand. Only in a movie that stars a vengeful bear will a character have a laugh at his girlfriend’s expense for wanting to bring bear spray. The first challenge to his masculinity shows up in the form of an Irish accented Eric Balfour who has so much testosterone that he is first spotted carrying around more freshly caught fish than he could ever hope to consume. He views every interaction as an opportunity to either passive-aggressively slap down Alex’s manhood or to make an overt pass at his woman. MacDonald seems to be making a point about faux tough guys (not an undeserving target) but Balfour’s character is never shown to be able to do anything other than capture and fillet fish; it takes a bit more than that to make it in this modern world of ours.
As good as that sequence is MacDonald really rolls out his magic in the final third of the film when Alex and Jenn veer off course (thanks a lot Alex) and begin frantically trying to find their way home before running into the biggest and nastiest non-CGI bear I have ever seen on screen. These scenes are uncomfortable and terrifying but also, perhaps more importantly, perfectly crafted. Pay attention to how much tension he is able to ratchet up while also noticing how little bear wrangling was actually required. This is limiting, no doubt, but I would argue that it is that much scarier because we are watching a real bear that could really eat these people slowly hunt them. It is all too easy to imagine oneself caught in the same awful scenario and to feel their doom in the pit of your stomach.
Beyond being impressive in his ability to turn in a stealth horror film MacDonald is also trying to say something about modern coupledom. Watch as an outwardly healthy couple becomes completely toxic when placed inside a pressure cooker situation. The jabs Jenn throws at Alex in the opening scene become razor fisted the second she realizes that he has unknowingly walked them into the middle of nowhere with no direction home. I would say that he was trying to dress up his meditation on marital discord if he wasn’t so damn good at the survival horror portion. He’s also shown a knack for doing more with less. What he essentially brings to the table is a four person cast and a fat ass bear and he’s molded it into an unrelenting thrill ride with relevant thoughts on its mind.
Director: Adam MacDonald Writer: Adam MacDonald Notable Cast: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, Nicolas Campbell