Review: Backcountry is Patient, Ferocious Survival Horror

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backcountry

There’s very little chaos camera in Adam MacDonald’s Canadian wilderness-set survival horror, Backcountry. Though largely straightforward in narrative, the filmmaker doesn’t lose confidence in his chronological adventure tale and attempt to gussy it up with shaky motion. When you begin to realize camping couple Jenn and Alex are lost, for instance, Backcountry doesn’t swirl or jolt or convulse. The camera continues along their trail steadily, only for the first time pointed up, moving forward but staring directly toward the sky and treetops. This is the destabilization. This is the sharp way of saying, “they might as well not even look where they’re headed.” No, MacDonald and the movie are reserved, which makes for a beautiful tale throughout and—when it does get motion intensive—an utterly ferocious final act. 

Similarly, MacDonald and cinematographer Christian Bielz aren’t style concentrated until the threat is real, opting for a naturalistic vibe to both Jenn and Alex’s hikes and their conversation. The countryside is beautiful yes, but presented as it might be, only growing more colorful and unreal as the couple’s situation worsens and leads to an impossibly intense encounter with a Black Bear.

How did they get there? Alex (Jeff Roop) is taking his business-oriented girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) camping. There’s a specific spot, a more advanced trail, with a lake and everything. The perfect place to propose (one of the movie’s few, forgivable emotional shortcuts). The viewer, however, is meant to question both Alex’s history and familiarity with such an oasis; his intent on proposing and leading an unforgettable weekend clouding both his preparedness and his vulnerability in their relationship.

The first real knock against his self-doubt comes from a dinner sequence with tour guide Brad (Eric Balfour), a mischievous and arrogant outdoorsman who consistently questions the couple. His is a fireside chat of giving Alex shit, the beginning of dangers that continue to cloud.  With Brad shaken off, the two walk on, MacDonald capturing their vacation often in handheld and off-the-cuff manner, peppering in struggle and obstacle, such as Jenn’s difficulties with a maze of branches, which plays as frustrating and visceral, if darkly comedic.

After all, frustrating and darkly humorous are a few of nature’s many sides. Backcountry opens on vivid trees, following them down to a carcass below, just before cutting to Alex exiting a newly descended elevator. We’re all headed down the same path, and it’s entirely natural be it old age or unfortunate bear attack.

And the bear attack is truly unfortunate. When the time comes—following purple, lightning sky and a fearful, shadowy image of the bear investigating the tent at night—Backcountry feels unleashed. MacDonald frames the attack in frenzied, disorienting manner, but also starkly, which presents the gore as gutting. So much of our consumption of graphic violence is served with heaps of the ridiculous, with truly frightening movies often achieving their frights with mood. Not here. There is a flash of hanging face in Backcountry that will simply stay with you.

In its near wordless finale, Backcountry becomes a direct bid for survival. Peregrym embodies the worry and the will, braving the physically treacherous so as to avoid the far worse alternative. It is constricting, in both the gut and the shoulders, a tremendous payoff for the film’s patient build.