Jeff Roop, left, and Missy Peregrym in Adam MacDonald's debut film, Backcountry. (Lindsay Sarazin/IFC Midnight)
Alex MacDonald’s debut film, Backcountry, tells a tale of peril deep in the Canadian wilderness. The story takes place when Alex, an experienced hiker, takes his girlfriend Jen on a weekend of hiking and camping. Though he hasn’t been on the trails in a bit, Alex fancies himself an outdoors enthusiast, opting to take the route less traveled by. You know, to get to all the good spots, right?
This film is as much about the ferocity of nature as it is about the hubris of man, and though the moments in which these themes present themselves are truly gripping and panic-inducing, they are decidedly sparse within the already limited 90-minute runtime. This film is more or less the woods version of Open Water, a film about a couple stranded at sea surrounded by sharks.
The central struggle of the film is when the couple are attacked by a black bear, and there really isn’t much else about it. It should probably have been titled Bear Attack, because everything else is just buildup to the one scene. It’s based on a true story, which is to say that a couple got attacked by a bear in the woods once. There are no other similarities to the story that inspired it, which at times made me question why the film even uses that label. Is this film supposed to advocate never camping ever?
It’s a gruesome concept, but there just isn’t enough other story to support the 90 minutes. The movie drags on for about 50 minutes before the bear attack in question. The preceding action is mostly just banter and false alarms to get the viewers on edge, but even those tropes are forced. In what may be the most misplaced scene in the film, Alex and Jen encounter a strange Irish hiker in the beginning of their journey. He speaks cryptically and seems to psychologically torment this couple for no apparent reason. But the encounter passes, the story moves on, and as the proceedings continue, I questioned more and more what that scene was all about. It felt more like something from a teen slasher than a movie about the wrath of nature.
Though I didn’t much care for the filler surrounding the roughly 5 minute scene that essentially is the film, those five minutes are utterly magical. MacDonald gets real bears, and once it attacks, the mauling is unreal. The shaky cam was a bit annoying, but I’ll let it pass for an indie film doing it’s best to get an up close bear attack on the screen. MacDonald doesn’t hold back, showing torn skin, and caved in rib cages. It’s not often that a character expresses fear that they’re going to die, and then immediately proceed to get eaten by a bear in the most brutal manner possible. So many films these days use CGI blood and body parts that it’s easy to forget how good practical effects look.
The last 30 minutes is closer to what the whole film is advertised as, a wilderness survival film. But the first hour is just so slow and uninteresting that I’m not sure it’s successful in this format. I can’t express enough how great the climax is, but it would probably work better as a short film or a 1 hour TV movie.
Now playing in theaters.
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