aka Blackfoot Trail
Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) are a handsome couple heading out for a backwoods adventure. Alex, who has moved disinterestedly between professions and is currently working as a landscape gardener, has experience as a woodsman. He’s not so quietly happy to have Jenn, an articulate and confident lawyer, depending on him for a change. He intends to take her to a remote, beautiful lake deep in a national park along the so-called Blackfoot Trail. A park ranger (Nicholas Campbell) warns Alex that the trail has been closed, but Alex presses ahead without telling Jenn. At their first campsite at the edge of the high country, Alex gets talking with an Irish trekker, Brad, (Eric Balfour) who claims to be a trail guide in the park, and shares the fish he’s caught with the couple. Charged masculine bullishness and paranoia arcs between Alex and Brad, leading to a confrontation, but Brad eventually backs off when Alex responds to his prods with grim-faced honesty, and departs. Alex leads Jenn on to the wilderness, and when he saws the paw print of a bear on the trail, takes her on a detour along a cruder trail. Alex’s certainty about the lie of the land begins to falter in the face of strange landscapes and gnawed deer carcasses left by the trail, as well as an injured toe that makes his progress doggedly painful. Finally, when he thinks they’ve reached their destination, the couple are instead confronted by a vista of wilderness, and the lingering tensions between them erupt, as Jenn, infuriated, accosts Alex as a loser who’s endangered them through his attempts to show off, until he sheepishly reveals the reason he was so intent on making the journey against all obstacles, as he hoped to propose to her at the lake. The couple soon realise however that being lost and hungry count amongst their lesser worries, as a large, cautious but formidable black bear is tracking them through the forest.
I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu watching Backcountry, the debut feature directing work of actor Adam MacDonald, who stars alongside Peregrym in the TV series Rookie Blue. The feeling of familiarity is not entirely MacDonald’s fault. Along with Into the Grizzly Maze (aka Red Machine, 2014), Backcountry is the second killer bear movie released lately amongst a recent spate of man-vs-nature dramas. Such works hark back to the days of backwoods horror flicks like Grizzly (1976), Claws (1977), and Prophecy (1979), as well as unavoidable precursors The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1975). Here there’s also the influence of more starkly serious, allegorical takes on the dangers of venturing off the beaten track, exemplified by Deliverance (1972). In terms of dramatic method and focus, Backcountry closely resembles Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek and also recalls Jeremy Lovering's In Fear (both 2014). As with those films, MacDonald takes a young couple on a cross-country adventure that segues into violent ordeal, as a means of exploring both the narrow line between civilised mores and primal instability, and also the points of fracture in contemporary male-female relationships, as opposed to the homosocial focus of Deliverance and most other, earlier survivalist tales. Like Goldthwait, MacDonald signals something slapdash under the male member of the couple’s self-assumed aura of prowess early on by showing him acting goofy behind the wheel of a car, and acerbically describes the ritual back-to-nature skinny-dipping, supposedly an expression of free-spirit bravado, as a challenge laced with wordlessly acknowledged implications. Doubtless, this is an interesting coincidence of intention, revealing something consistent going on in the minds of directors dabbling in low-budget horror at the moment. Where Goldthwait’s film was droll and eccentric in leading up to its cruel punch-lines and Into the Grizzly Maze a fun-cheesy throwback to a ‘80s style monster movie, Backcountry is rather intensely serious and determined in its desire to articulate its ideas to the point of being overdrawn in places, in spite of its minimalist storytelling and cast.
MacDonald was apparently inspired by a real-life event, but he doesn’t settle for mere docu-drama effect, and goes beyond making the characters blank avatars for normality faced with the unknown, attempting instead to study the way situational and character dynamics fuse and combust. MacDonald amplifies the background strains on Alex and Jenn by making them disparate avatars of class as well as woodland experience and gender norms, and privileges the viewer in noting Alex’s various decisions to ignore or tactically avoid signs of threat. Alex’s uneasy square-off against interloping Brad, whose blend of aggressive bonhomie and fishy traits – his Oyrish brogue contradicts his claims to have grown up in these here parts – strains too much to achieve a note of tense “ambiguity” whilst underlining the readiness of these men-folk to snap into time-honoured stances of competition before the worthy mate. MacDonald offers up Alex as exemplar of macho arrogance still subsisting under the veneer of fun-loving hipster, grazing against the outer edges of schematic issue-mongering: the mansplainer as villain. MacDonald undercuts and complicates this to a certain extent when the object of Alex’s emphatic focus is revealed, comprehending if not absolving his mistakes. Alex is allowed a certain luckless pathos once his hopes are dashed and the gaps in his relationship cruelly exposed, and also given him a least a glint of nobility in his hopes of expanding Jenn’s game but constricted experience and granting their union a reference point to something outside the usual proclivities of urbanite coupling and its place within the flux of modern life. Alex’s attempts to improvise prove his undoing, however, in the face of the dark side of the commune-with-nature fantasy and the reality of inimical forces lurking in the woods, the very thing civilisation has been created to hold at bay.
Backcountry is exceptionally well-made, with MacDonald making use of hand-held camerawork and spacy audio-visual effects that could have become laboured clichés but instead prove judiciously handled. MacDonald backs up his sometimes over-determined themes with solidly-crafted storytelling, with plotting that functions effectively on the level of real-world logic as well as illustrated nightmare: from the warning that the trail is closed, to the tell-tail stains of blood on Alex’s socks from his mangled toe that attract the bear, and the various ill-fated moves he makes to avoid trouble instead exacerbating the predicament, MacDonald deploys detail with sparing but cumulative effect. A gruelling physical challenge in climbing down a teetering waterfall met late in the film is cleverly anticipated in earlier dialogue, teasing out another notion the film is fascinated by, the moment where rhetorical knowledge crashes headlong into practical application. MacDonald offers a mirroring scene to the moment in Jurassic World (2015) where the heroine led on a monster with a flare, swapping that film’s comedic approach for the sight of Jenn stumbling in the night, her flare the only barrier between her and the teeth in the dark, but both films are tellingly fascinated by the spectacle of simultaneous exterior exposure and emerging interior armament in ill-starred women, far out of their depth but eventually proving hardy and capable.
Most importantly, when it comes to the crunch (so to speak), Backcountry swerves from charting the ephemeral play of human relationships to outright horror with a sense of sudden, blunt, unstoppable calamity. Here, Backcountry, although not always so delicate in getting to the point, suddenly achieves a powerful effect, one more contemporary horror films ought to emulate, in not simply offering suspense or gore pyrotechnics but a sense of the disorientating brutality of utterly inimical situations, and confronting the audience with a truly awful proposition: what is it like to watch (and hear) your lover being consumed by a wild animal? In this regard Backcountry does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the classic films it evokes, whilst also in some ways daring to go past them. Backcountry distils the essence of the genre, a singular, hideous pivot of fate that comes and goes, perhaps with a test passed, perhaps not, but with the only assurance being that assurance is lost.