No matter what you walk away thinking of writer/director Adam MacDonald‘s feature directorial debut Backcountry, you are sure to have been chilled by his menacing use of sound as a couple find themselves lost in the Canadian wilderness. For the sake of complete transparency, I watched the film in a manner MacDonald would most likely frown upon — on my computer via a screener link — but with a pair of headphones cranked up I have to admit the salivary grumble of a hungry bear outside the couple’s tent, separated by only a thin layer of nylon, was incredibly unsettling. In fact, sound plays a massive role throughout the film to the point a helicopter is heard but not seen, though you have no doubt it was actually there. Where Backcountry struggles, however, is in its story as it stretches, and stretches, and stretches to meet its 92 minute running time. However, as a late night watch, this survival drama ratchets up the tension enough in its final 20 minute it will likely be worthwhile for interested audiences.
Supposedly based on a true story, the film follows Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) as he seeks to introduce his girlfriend to the wilderness he used to explore as a child. The end goal is a supposedly majestic view of a lake, but the foreboding plot hints begin dropping from the very start.
First there’s Alex’s frustration with Jenn’s constant cell phone use. Next a surly park ranger (Nicholas Campbell) asks Alex if he wants a map and when he says no he begins referring to him as “Mr. No Map” and asks him where they plan on going, and wouldn’t you know it, that portion of the forest is closed. Hmmmm, I wonder if they’ll get lost.
Then there’s Eric Balfour coming out of nowhere as some sort of maniac, backwoods fisherman who doesn’t just clean fish before cooking them, but savagely mutilates them, ripping their guts out with MacDonald adding sickening sucking sounds to ratchet up the disgust. Kudos to him, it keeps the stomach churning, but from a story perspective I can’t say I was all that invested.
Cinematographer Christian Bielz does his best to keep things interesting as well, using wide shots from a distance, often hiding behind foliage, giving the film something of a “found footage” intimacy without depending on the now-tired gimmick. They also throw in a few GoPro moments and the film’s gore can get rather intense. As a visual and aural piece of cinema, Backcountry is quite effective, it’s just as I said, there isn’t much intrigue to keep you juiced along the way.
This, however, is how a first feature should play. MacDonald is experimenting and based on his use of sound, imagery and impressive use of a live bear, he seems to know the story isn’t 100% so he does everything he can to keep the audience engaged with other cinematic aspects. MacDonald seems to have a good understanding of the language of cinema, but Backcountry would have definitely been far better had he edited it down to a lean 75-80 minute feature. Too much time is dedicated to superfluous scenes that only cause the story to drag rather than be as engaging as the filmmaking itself.