Backcountry expresses a novel way of getting rid of a partner who has become a drag in your relationship. Go on a backpacking trip together and hope he or she is eaten by a bear. That’s the only real surprise in this effective, but effectively predictable, backwoods thriller from director Adam MacDonald, which requires that an REI ad-ready pair named Jenn and Alex must make a lot of stupid mistakes in order to become potential bear chow. Claw past the clichés and you’ll find decent performances and several tense moments, but more often than not you’ll be rooting for the bear.
Any reasonably experienced Northwest hiker will spot the idiocies early on. Alex (Jeff Roop), hoping to impress Jenn (Missy Peregrym) with his knowledge of a trail he’s hiked many times before (the first of his many fibs), refuses a map from the park ranger. The ranger, disregarding the cost to taxpayers if this couple ends up missing, doesn’t insist on them taking a map or registering their destination. Alex scoffs at Jenn’s bear spray and cell phone. They don’t carry enough water, nor do they stay on the established main trail. Alex wants to show his girlfriend a lake he remembers as a teenager, but the surrounding forest–spindly and monotonous–is uninspiring. As they make camp their first night, Jenn invites a handsome and competent, but also vaguely menacing, stranger to dinner around the campfire. Here we learn that Jenn is a successful lawyer and Alex is a struggling landscape assistant. He’s also insecure, arrogant, judgmental, and perhaps just the right portion size for a hairy, huge, hungry mammal.
Jenn is no picnic either. Flirty, superior, and dismissive, she finally tells Alex what she really thinks of him after they discover they’re hopelessly lost. This is the best scene in the film, a moment when the odds of survival decrease in direct proportion to the compatibility of the partners in crisis. The marauding bear emerges as a symbol of their dysfunction and for the literal end of their relationship. It doesn’t seem fair that either should become Salisbury steak for this ursine intruder, but if one has to go, why not surprise us with the least convenient choice?
Backcountry is similar in plot and structure to last year’s little-seen but far more satisfying found-footage thriller Willow Creek. The comparison is technical as well as conceptual. Willow Creek, stripped of music and commercial story beats, possessed a chilling authenticity, aided by the rough beauty of nature captured almost by accident via the handheld camera. Backcountry is as sparkly clean as a sunlit stream, so bright and pretty and calculated it feels like countless other calling card movies designed to show off the director’s HD-ready skillset.
This doesn’t mean the movie fails to get freaky. Backpackers with even a remote fear of encountering a bear in the wilderness will either want to avoid this film or cleanse their memory banks of having ever seen it before venturing into the woods again. And, I can’t say this with any first-hand experience, but the sight of a bear feasting on a human body certainly looked real enough, not to mention the screams that reminded me of the scene in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man when he, but not us, listened to the taped howls of a man and woman being eaten alive. MacDonald based Backcountry on a true story, but the relationship distress was his invention, as were the fictional final scenes, including a shot indicating that maybe, just maybe, one of the characters got what they wanted all along.
This review first appeared on The Restless Critic blog.