I like to hike and given that I go by ‘Bears,’ you can only guess I have a sizable amount of respect for the Earth’s largest land carnivore. Baby bears are the cutest thing on the planet; adult bears, well, I think Werner Herzog’s GRIZZLY MAN taught us all that man was not meant to be live amongst the bears. And THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT taught us not to go too far into the woods without a map. Adam McDonald’s thriller BACKCOUNTRY comes out just as the spring showers are clearing and I’m getting ready to hit the trails. This intense, tight edge-of-your-seater premiered last year at Toronto, and reminds us that the ‘back country’ is no place for a novice.
Based on a true story, BACKCOUNTRY finds an ill-prepared city couple trying to reconnect with the wild on a weekend excursion into a Canadian Provincial park. Alex (Jeff Roop) has fond memories of camping here as a child and wants to share his favorite trail with Jenn (Missy Peregrym). When the park ranger tells them the trail is closed for the season, the audience knows Jeff is not going to listen, especially as he refuses a map. But Jeff does show his old boy scout skills, lighting a fire without a match and such, he’s getting a chance to prove his masculinity to his woman, who can barely put down her cell phone before they arrive. The film takes an ominous turn when local backwoods guide Brad (Eric Balfour) shows up. His intentions toward Jenn and out alpha-ing Alex become apparent as they share dinner. After Brad heads off, Alex only wants to conquer this closed trail more, and they turn off the main path…
So yeah… not a good idea. As the film proceeds, the couple gets horribly lost, fight, and stumble upon a bear den. Out of food and water, and nowhere near where they thought they were, Alex and Jenn confront just how fragile their relationship is. And then comes the bear, a force of nature that cannot be reasoned with. The last half of the film plays out as a horror movie, shot in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable, with the ‘killer’ being a bear.
BACKCOUNTRY is terrifying because it feels so real, and could happen to anyone in the woods. They don’t necessarily do anything to antagonize the bear, they don’t even really have any food, but they don’t have any of the tools necessary to face this foe. The first half of the film does an excellent job of setting up these lovers, so that when Alex feels emasculated, you really feel where he is coming from, you cheer for him to find that trail. Roop is especially good in the scene with local guide, not wanted to show the cracks in his confidence but also unsure if he can take this guy. Peregrym really shines in the film, and though her character had no interest in coming to the woods, her instincts make her the perfect survivor. I have no doubt there are a few more action flicks in her future.
MacDonald proves himself a master of tension in his first feature. The sequence with the local guide, though it turns out to be a misdirect, if fraught with menace and gripping performances. He shoots the woods in such a way they can be both beautiful at times, and overwhelming at others. BACKCOUNTRY is a confident hike into terror, with your racing pulse as your only guide. And the bear, a giant, should keep a few people back on the beaten path this year.
Adam MacDonald’s BACKCOUNTRY opens today, March 20th, in theaters nationwide, as well as on VOD.