2015 - 92 minutes
Directed by: Adam MacDonald
Written by: Adam MacDonald
Starring: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour
At the start of a camping trip, Jenn’s boyfriend scoffs when she pulls out a can of bear spay, rolling his eyes and chuckling while saying they won’t need it. But, of course, they will. This couple will need every tool at their disposal, most importantly resolve in the face of helplessness, to survive the battle of man versus nature that’s about to be waged in the dense woods.
Backcountry doesn’t attempt to differentiate itself by sensationalizing the distressing elements of a wilderness adventure gone wrong; it taps into universal fears with in-the-moment tension and terror. The anxiety is palpable and various threats are immediately recognizable, illustrating how illusory the concept of control is, and how frightening it can be when it’s lost.
Jenn (Missy Peregrym) is apprehensive about the trek into the wild, but respectfully accompanies boyfriend Alex (Jeff Roop) on an exploration of his old childhood haunts. He’s determined to show Jenn the scenic trail he traveled in his youth. Upon learning it’s closed he pushes forward, even arrogantly refusing a map from the park ranger. On the well-traveled portion of the path, the couple encounters Brad (Eric Balfour). Over a campfire dinner, the Irishman disrupts the tranquility by flirting with Jenn and challenging Alex’s manhood. Moving further into the wilderness and away from the stranger, Alex gets turned around and the couple is lost and alone. A weekend escape turns to a fight to stay alive as supplies dwindle and a predatory black bear prowls.
The bear is no doubt a major part of the final act conflict, but Backcountry isn’t necessarily about doing battle with a dangerous beast. It’s a potentially deadly consequence occurring after Jenn and Alex’s façade of idyll is shattered – the culmination of a doomed journey undertaken by two people who care about each other, but probably aren’t really sure why. If there’s a flaw with how the relationship is presented it’s that we’re never really sure why Jenn is so accommodating at the outset.
Jenn is beautiful and smart, and we sense that this trip provides Alex a way to exercise some control and flex his muscle a bit. There’s the deriding of the bear spray, along with a road flare Jenn brought, which occurs moments before Alex drops a canoe on his foot and plays it off as no big deal. He wants her to have to rely on him and concentrate on the special weekend he has planned. His single-mindedness contributes to the couple being stranded without a cellphone – much better than a “no service” close-up – and irritated with each other. Alex is navigating the whole relationship thing without a map, too.
For Jenn’s part, she’s a little to content to hang back and follow Alex’s lead. She’s fairly sure they’re straying, but goes along with her boyfriend’s unconvincing assurances. After she finally, and understandably, blows up and directs some harsh words at Alex, the two resolve the conflict as if it were an argument about bills or yardwork. It wasn’t; this was a primal dispute that revealed true feelings. Peregrym is fantastic at portraying all the subtleties, and even though her character is a follower for much of the journey, we connect with her and sense she has inner strength and the wherewithal to save herself if required to do so.
Similar to the way writer/director Adam MacDonald expertly parses out the dilemmas of the relationship, the burly bear is first hinted at, then seen in shadow and heard grunting outside the couple’s nylon tent before finally manifesting. As it advances, it is absolutely terrifying. The initial attack is fast and brutal, playing out as horrifyingly as you could imagine. Suddenly, bear spray isn’t as reassuring as split-second decisions that could determine life or death need to be made.
The shocks sting deep not only because of the grim prospects of being eviscerated by an infinitely physically stronger animal, but also because of the situations and characterizations that led us to this point. We can relate with the all of the trepidations along the way, and while presenting the threat of a sudden gruesome demise, MacDonald pulls no punches, be they fiercely physical or emotional.