A backpacking trip goes horrifyingly wrong when a couple strays off-trail.
Adam MacDonald’s first feature film Backcountry has a quote on its film poster saying that the film “…does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean.” And while its true the film portrays a truly grisly and terrifying backpacking trip gone wrong, the film surprisingly cautioned me more against the dangers of an uncommunicative relationship than it did the dangers of camping. This was likely an unintentional lesson on MacDonald’s part, but nonetheless adds another dimension to what is a generally slow-building but tension-sustaining survival thriller.
MacDonald understands the way five little words almost always set a film up for a more invested viewing. Place “Based on a true story” at the beginning of any film and viewers are more likely to pay attention, wondering all along the similarities to real life and feeling a deeper connection to the story’s characters because they are based in reality. So while watching Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop) embark on a backpacking trip in the woods of Ontario, it’s that much easier to hope for the best for this couple. Things start out normal enough. Jenn and Alex make their way north to the woods where Alex spent his childhood backpacking. Jenn takes a telling quiz in a women’s magazine about her boyfriend. “Does he have a hard time admitting when he’s wrong?” Definitely, she says.
Alex is disappointed upon their arrival at the trailhead to learn from the ranger that the trail he wanted to take Jenn on is closed for the season. They embark on a different trail instead, Alex teasing Jenn right off the bat for the bear spray she brought and a seemingly useless road flare. Clear foreshadowing of course, and its hard to fault MacDonald for this sort of projecting if the viewer has even the vaguest idea of the story before viewing, but unnecessary nevertheless. The two set off on the trail and hit their first bit of unease when another hiker, a cocksure Irish trail guide named Brad (Eric Balfour), charms Jenn into inviting him for dinner. Alex is clearly unhappy about the situation and it makes for a tense evening, especially when the confrontational Brad feels the need to assert his dominance before taking off back on the trail.
Alex leads them off-trail the next day, much to Jenn-the-lawyer’s dismay. Their conversation is light at times, telling at others. Alex sees signs of trouble, a broken twig outside their camp for instance, and chooses to lie to Jenn rather than let her worry. Without giving away too much, the two meet a statistically unlikely but quite terrifying situation when the culmination of all Alex’s bad choices lead to disaster.
MacDonald doesn’t hold back. The transition from camping trip to survival tale is swift and dizzying. Peregrym and Roop shine more in their roles as stressed survivalists than in their chemistry-lacking roles as boyfriend and girlfriend. Whether or not MacDonald, who also wrote the script, meant to paint them as a mismatched couple or not, their lacking communication skills put both of them in danger. If Jenn had been able to communicate her disinterest in camping better; or if Alex had compromised with her by not taking her on a complicated first camping trip; or if Jenn had put her foot down about going off-trail; or if Alex had been honest about the signs of danger he was noticing on the trail, well, let’s say a few conversations would have gone a long way for these two. And this is where MacDonald’s film most resembles a slasher film, where victims somehow prove they “deserve” their fate. Usually it’s in the form of promiscuous sex, here it’s for being uncommunicative with one’s significant other.
But Backcountry does at times feel more like a ’80s slasher film than a true-story survival tale. The scares are long-lasting and shocking, and the end mirrors the fight-to-survive standoff of ’80s horror films. The cinematography does the most to keep the film from falling into any of the camp one associates with that genre, however. Christian Bielz, the film’s cinematographer, is most experienced in reality television and he certainly does a great job of focusing on the sorts of details that allow for mood manipulation, mostly by paying close attention to the telling faces of the characters.
The film is smart to project many possible outcomes for the couple early on, though the movie’s poster hints to some obvious conclusions. There is plenty that can go wrong on a trail, the interesting part of Backcountry is that it is human error that most gets them into trouble, the danger they couldn’t predict just providing another level of horror on top of what they were already experiencing. And this is what will stay most with audiences: 25% of the film’s atrocities are highly unlikely, but the other 75% are entirely the fault of the characters and that means any one of us could find ourselves in the same situation.
Backcountry is in theaters and on VOD Friday, March 20.