For longtime readers or listeners of the various podcasts I’m on will be familiar with my affinity for animal run amok films. Throw some folks into the woods and put an animal on their trail, and I’m a happy guy. Backcountry, then, should have been a home run for me.
The film focuses on Jenn and Alex, played by Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop respectively, who are venturing into the deep woods for a vacation. Alex is returning to his old stomping grounds, having spent time in these woods as a child, while attorney Jenn is not especially outdoors-y, but is willing to allow Alex to guide her into the forest. They appear to be a happy-enough couple, though the intrusion by an Irish deep forest guide, played by Eric Balfour, strains the good time they’re trying to have and presents a challenge to Alex, who sees the outside threat as yet another knock on his ability as a provider for Jenn.
As with many films of this type, the couple finds they are lost after hiking for a couple of days, and Alex, in his attempt to assert himself as a master woodsman, has declined a map offered by the local forest ranger and stashed Jenn’s cell phone in their car so they trip would be free of distractions. Along their hike, they begin to detect signs of a bear, including a deer carcass and tracks left by the animal. Lost, short on food and water, the couple strives to make it back to civilization, though blood-inducing wounds on Alex have given the bear their scent and the struggle for survival becomes more intense as the pair is stalked by this powerful force of nature.
There are certainly things to like about Backcountry, especially the performance from Peregrym, who I’ve enjoyed since her turn on the short-lived series Reaper. Roop, too, does a nice job of playing the boyfriend who is emasculated in his relationship by the relative success of his girlfriend. It’s hard not to capture some gorgeous shots when filming in nature, and the movie presents some beautiful views while still capturing the ominous isolation that man lost in nature provides. When the bear attacks come, they pack a visceral punch. It is easy to forget in our modern world that we are, at the end of the day, animals that are quite weak and defenseless when presented with true alpha predators. There is an especially grisly (grizzly?) reminder of this in Backcountry, and the movie, at its best, makes one feel small and helpless in the face of the true power of a black bear that decides you’re on the menu.
I wish there had been so much more of that. We spend most of our time with the couple lost in the woods, and their decaying relationship with one another, that the bear doesn’t really become a threat until after the first hour, and then disappears for another great chunk of the remainder. While billed as a man versus nature affair, Backcountry spends more of its time with its characters surviving elements and dwindling resources than with surviving the great black bear. This sort of thing has been done with more gusto in films like Castaway or even Deliverance. I believe budgetary limitations may have restricted the usage of the bear, which is unfortunate and even the attack scenes are so hectic and bouncily-shot, it’s really only the aftermath that gives us the horror I had hoped for in the film.
While competent across the board, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed after my time with Backcountry, and perhaps I am the victim of unrealistic expectations. Where Jaws teased the shark for much of the runtime, then gave us all we could want, Backcountry teases, offers one truly fine scene of bear-on-human violence, then becomes a race to civilization, with little bear-related antics to follow. I suppose if you go in not expecting the bear to play a major role, you might find more to like here, but the poster and word-of-mouth had been building the film to be bear-centric, which it is not. So, viewer beware. You want a bear movie, watch Leslie Nielsen fight one with a stick in Day of the Animals. You want a wilderness survival story, this one ain’t half bad if you don’t mind the lack of bears.