“Backcountry” Movie Review

     You would have to know me pretty well to have heard the story of my in-tent encounter with a snake while in the Anniston, Alabama woods for U.S. Army Basic Training some 25 years ago.  It was one of those truly helpless moments where I woke to the sensation of the indigenous creature slithering within the confined space of two snapped together shelter halves while my bunk mate sat up and froze just as I did.  Save to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night and I haven’t exactly been clamoring to plan another excursion into the wilderness even after all of these years.  If you share a similar experience, than viewing writer/director Adam MacDonald’s feature film debut, “Backcountry”, will likely persuade you to postpone any future camping trips for the time being.  As a pure indie film, “Backcountry” doesn’t feature the A-list cast and the whizz bang special effects and production design of a studio entry, but what it lacks in those attributes is replaced with a terrifying true story and nail biting suspense that will have the audience on edge for the film’s entire running time.

     To say a couple is taking a camping trip in the Canadian wilderness in search of a trail that ends with a glorious nature fueled payoff would likely be viewed differently by males and females.  MacDonald knows this, as his script is constructed with scenes that play to the kind of fears each gender is likely to have in this kind of situation.  Jenn (Missy Peregrym) is a lawyer who needed a lot of convincing from her boyfriend, Alex (Jeff Roop), to embark on a several days long camping and hiking trip in which they would ultimately end up hiking a secluded area called the Blackfoot Trail, a trail that Alex last explored in high school.  While everything begins well enough,  Alex and Jenn get more than they both bargained for when they decide to stop and camp during the first evening of the hike.

     When Alex leaves the camp to get fire wood, Jenn is suddenly approached at their camp by a survivalist named Brad (Eric Balfour), who strikes up a conversation and invites himself to dinner.  When Alex returns and sees this, you get one of the film’s great scenes as the “threes a crowd” scenario begins to play out immediately.  This is where men and women can be different.  When Alex returns, the first thing he’s thinking in his mind is, we are in the middle of no where and this guy just shows up and starts taking a liking to my girlfriend.  He’s clearly bigger than me and is flaunting a really large knife.  Can I take him if I had to?  If I allow him to stay for dinner, will he leave after?  Has he been following us?  What was Jenn thinking inviting him to eat dinner with us?  Jenn, as MacDonald has drawn her as a character, seems completely naive to these questions and sees no threat at all.  In these situations, men are wired to step in and show dominance, which Alex has already done countless times to this point when he goes out of his way to demonstrate his skills as an outdoorsman to Jenn.  When someone like Brad shows up, who has the look of someone that is likely better at this sort of thing, it tends to put a strain on the situation.

     There’s no doubt the first obstacle Jenn and Alex have to overcome is the argument that ensues after Brad’s tenuous departure.  The squabbling; however, soon becomes the least of their worries.  MacDonald presents this thriller with a slow burn, as our two adventurers find clues along the way that indicate something is out there awaiting them.  Some of the best sequences have MacDonald bringing his camera into the tent with Alex and Jenn and not allowing it to leave and show what’s on the outside. He ratchets up the tension even further when he has the characters unzip a few inches of the tent door just enough to see what’s outside, only to zip right back up and do it again a few seconds later.  When they wake in the middle of the night and hear noises, is it just acorns falling from the trees above?  Is it just a raccoon as Alex tells her?  We’ve already seen a mysterious footprint on the ground along the way, as well as the mutilated remains of a deer.  Could there be something else outside of the tent?  MacDonald inserts several scenes like this, but always cuts to the morning when all seems well.  They’ve made it through another night, but you know something is amiss and the characters are beginning to realize it too.

     The third act of “Backcountry” is an all out attempt at survival under some of the most excruciating circumstances one could ever imagine.  Alex is certainly not the polished outdoorsman he claims to be and Jenn becomes proof that a person can will themselves through virtually any situation when those primal survival instincts kick in.  What’s amazing about what MacDonald has done here is he seems to completely avoid the tendency to have his film follow the typical horror genre tropes that the audience would expect from a film like this.  Just like “Jaws” and “Alien”, he never shows you what it is that is tormenting them during their journey, but there is evidence which indicates it is always there waiting to strike at any moment.  Because MacDonald shoots with a point of view style in the film’s key sequences, Jenn and Alex’s encounter with one of nature’s most feared predators plays more like a real experience, resulting in a vividly life like and terrifying last twenty minutes that effectively depicts the fears all of us have of being out of our element and not knowing what to do.  GRADE: B