Now available on DVD
Gary Oldman as Paul
Paddy Considine as Norman
Aitana SÃ¡nchez-GijÃ³n as Isabel
Virginie Ledoyen as Lucy
LluÃs Homar as Paco
Directed by Koldo Serra
Remember all the hype when Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro shared the screen in Heat? That is how I felt upon hearing Gary Oldman and his successor-to-the-acting-throne Paddy Considine would co-star in Koldo Serra’s thriller, The Backwoods. Easily two of the best actors working today, these men provide the film with powerful leading performances. Unfortunately, they can only do so much, as the movie suffers from a convoluted script that borrows too much from its cinematic predecessors and fails to really go anywhere.
Set in the summer of 1978, two Londoners and their wives take a trip to northern Spain to stay in a remote house in the woods. Paul (Oldman) is an outdoors enthusiast and fluent Spanish speaker, whereas Norman (Considine) is an awkward tourist who is only tagging along in hopes the change of scenery will repair his ailing marriage. While hunting in the woods, the two men find an abandoned house and make a startling discovery – a deformed little girl locked inside like an animal. They bring her back to their house with intentions of taking her to the police, but soon the local townsfolk come looking for her. When the protagonists refuse to relinquish the abused girl to her captors, a violence clash ensues.
In the lead, Oldman is brilliant as always. Although unlikable at the film’s start, Paul eventually becomes the one character you really care about. His complete dedication to saving the little girl, even at his own peril, draws the viewer into their predicament. Meanwhile, Considine basically plays the complete opposite of his Dead Man’s Shoes character. Norman is a timid, indecisive little man. The events of the movie drive him to the edge and he finds exactly what he is capable of when pushed to the brink. Both men undergo a shift in character, as Paul – ever the hunter – becomes prey to the Spanish locals, and meek Norman refuses to be stepped on any longer. While both actors are great individually, I only wish they had more chemistry with each other on-screen.
Aitana SÃ¡nchez-GijÃ³n and Virginie Ledoyen portray the wives in the film. As Paul’s wife Isabel, SÃ¡nchez-GijÃ³n is quite good but her role deserved more development. Norman’s wife Lucy gets a lot more back story (failing marriage, implied lost child) but Ledoyen made her seem wooden and unsympathetic. One supporting actor worth mentioning is Spanish actor LluÃs Homar, who portrays the leader of the locals who are looking for the girl. His character is interesting because he is responsible for the abuse of the child, yet he completely believes what he has done is right. Homar, who can speak volumes with just his eyes, is a solid actor fully capable of standing toe-to-toe with Oldman. They have great antagonistic chemistry together.
The Backwoods captures the late 1970s vibe pretty well, and it has an especially cool soundtrack laced with Leonard Cohen tracks. The cinematography is effectively dark and, when combined with the remote woodland setting, creates a tense atmosphere overall. Serra’s directing emulates that of 1970s cinema, which is an interesting – although not always appropriate – filmmaking decision. The movie spends too much time paying homage to Sam Peckinpah and not enough time developing its characters and their moral motives.
The script is where this film really falters. To begin with, it owes far too much to Peckinpah’s 1971 classic, Straw Dogs. In fact, Norman’s character arc is so much like that of David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) that you might start to think this film is a remake. Furthermore, none of the characters are properly developed and the film suggests ideas without ever following through. For instance, the script implies that Lucy lost a child to a miscarriage or abortion but makes no attempt to connect this with the child they find. Even the ending of the film is anti-climactic. Some sort of moral conclusion would have been nice.
The Backwoods tackles an interesting albeit derivative plot with moderate success. The movie has some great performances and a stylish look, but is riddled with moral dead-ends and sometimes feels like the hollow shell of a Peckinpah film. As a director, Serra has potential and given a better script he could really shine. His first feature film was not the groundbreaking cult classic I had hoped it would be, but it is a decent homage to a dormant subgenre of cinema.