TIFF 2014: Backcountry
Opening with the camera tracking towards an unseen but, based on the sound design, grisly sight, Backcountry immediately foreshadows a nasty outcome for its characters. Corporate lawyer Jenn (Missy Peregrym) reluctantly tags along with boyfriend Alex (Jeff Roop) on a weekend camping trip in Northern Ontario. He wants to show her the old hiking trail he used to take as a kid, but she’s clearly the type who prefers to stay in the city rather than venture into the wilderness. Things immediately start on the wrong foot. Jenn over-prepares, bringing bear spray and a road flare, while Alex stubbornly refuses to take a map, bragging about how he knows the area. Question: Do you think Alex will come to regret that decision? (Answer: Yes)
With an early reference to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, writer/director Adam MacDonald similarly spends his time slowly but surely building up discomfort and tension. The film keeps its options open, presenting more than several grisly endings for the seemingly happy couple. Should they heed the park ranger’s warnings about “yahoos” wandering the trail? Or should they watch out for black bears, given that they’re known to wander the area? And what about their unsettling encounter with a park guide (Eric Balfour) on their first night camping? It’s hard to guess what exactly will occur as Jenn and Alex go deeper into the woods, and this unpredictability only adds to the film’s underlying tension.
With lean, smart pacing and no hesitation to get nasty in its showcase of nature’s cruelty, Backcountry is a strong entry in the survival thriller genre. MacDonald’s script certainly follows a lot of familiar story beats, but he cleverly subverts expectations more than once. Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop are convincing as the main couple, putting a lot more depth into their roles than one would expect in this kind of genre-based film. But it’s Peregrym who steals the show, using her charm and physicality to carry the film on her shoulders by the final act. Wild may be the survival in the wilderness movie everyone will be talking about at TIFF this year, and while Backcountry is a completely different beast of a film, it should be admired for how well it pulls off such a familiar genre. It’s good filmmaking all-around.