Backcountry: Grizzly, Man. [Review]

Deadshirters Max Robinson and Mike Pfeiffer attended a special screening of Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry and discussed their thoughts on the film.


Max: Backcountry is a pretty straightforward flick: a couple goes camping in the Canadian wilderness, everything goes to hell. Fair warning, there’ll be spoilers throughout Mike’s and my discussion.

Okay, so, first off: this screening was really interesting in that we watched a movie about camping in a camping supply store. On camp chairs. Surrounded by Gore-Tex jackets. Pretty wild.

Mike: In a history of falling ass-backwards into movie screening invites as Max’s “Plus-One” (Pacific Rim, The World’s End, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), the pitch for this Backcountry event was absolutely the most arresting, since there was a “Wine and Beef Jerky Reception.” The jerky never materialized, but the surreal experience of watching this wilderness survival flick in a fake forest of pitons and crampons gave it a cool campfire storytelling vibe that enhanced the ambiance of the movie.

Max: Yeah, that angle was really fun, totally independent of the movie itself, which I thought was quite good. We also ended up talking to the film’s director, Adam MacDonald, for a decent bit. It was kind of like stumbling into someone’s senior thesis presentation except IFC was paying for everything.

Mike: I came into the screening mostly blind, and talking to MacDonald about his directorial debut yielded some interesting insight into the history of the production. He noted that the Canadian parks service almost didn’t let him film because they believed that, “This movie might do to the woods what Jaws did to the water,” which is a tall order, but, if you can’t trust the sensitivity of a Canadian park ranger, then what can you trust in this broken world?

Max: Okay, so, what impressed me about Backcountry is that, despite definitely being a low-budget, first-effort horror flick, it avoids the big mistakes that sink those kinds of movies. And by that I mean, lousy acting, stilted “way too clever for its own good” Tarantino-wannabe dialogue, and too many characters. Backcountry lives and dies on you finding leads Jenn and Alex (Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop) interesting to watch and, luckily, they are. Even though the emotional fireworks don’t go off until well into the film, you get a great feel for this couple, the dynamic of their relationship, and the underlying issues therein. Alpha male mountainman Brad (Eric Balfour) is really the only other noteworthy human character, and, while impressively creepy, he just seems to be there to emphasize Alex’s hyper self-consciousness about his manhood. It’s ostensibly a pretty restrained drama until the bear appears.


Mike: Based on a mental rolodex of low-budget horror films, I was prepared to see a Blair Witch jump scare-athon or the recursive, referential kind of Diet-Shaun-Of-The-Dead horror movie that fans of the genre tend to make if you give them a bucket of red corn syrup and enough rope. I was pleasantly surprised with an indie thriller about nature overtaking human concerns, as opposed to a found footage piece about a tent that tells you how you’re going to die or something. MacDonald’s first directorial effort showed a steady hand with pacing and dialogue that made the moments of terror really pop. But is it a horror movie? I don’t quite think so.

Max: I think it’s a horror movie for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s scary. The slow burn reveal of the bear is creepy. We go from seeing a paw print, to just hearing it, to seeing its silhouette outside the tent, to actually seeing it. The concept of “transgression” is pretty crucial to horror, right? The protagonists have to commit some kind of violation or offense to “earn” what happens to them. Alex sees markings left by the bear and chooses to ignore them, and he lies about knowing where they’re going. His gruesome death and Jenn’s trauma are both direct results of his inability to back down from this aggro masculinity.

Mike: I definitely agree that it’s a tense and scary movie. But horror is about an internal conflict externalized by metaphor, and ultimately overcome by a symbolic resolution. Alex’s (Roop) headstrong masculinity is definitely at the heart of the conflict that turns the second act into a nightmare, but the resolution of the movie doesn’t particularly involve a character dynamically adapting to the situation and learning a lesson. It’s splitting hairs to say that Backcountry is more of a “Wilderness Survival” movie than a horror movie, but the strength of the film is in the way it crafts characters whose tension feels real and invests the audience in their plight with a foundation of good atmosphere, as opposed to the narrative punishing them until they stop having sex or burning pedophiles to death or ignoring campers or whatever.

Max: I mean, this definitely has more in common with Deliverance than it does Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but if it isn’t on some level a horror film then why does MacDonald toss in an offhand reference to You’re Next with the snippet of “Looking for the Magic” on the car radio? That was a “The Hills Have Eyes poster in the basement of Evil Dead” moment for me: “You like that? Watch this.”

Mike: I put hot sauce on eggs but it doesn’t make them chicken wings. Backcountry’s got a lot in common with You’re Next in the way that the gory moments become important to the plot, or the way the bare-bones production value focuses you on the movie instead of its effects, but placing them in the same canon doesn’t add up for me. Like hot sauce on eggs, though: I think it’s dope, but your idea of breakfast may vary.

Max: Genre arguments aside, I really dug how kind of seamless the movie’s transition from “twentysomething couple goes on a leisurely hike” escalates into, like, bleak, bad-news despair. Jenn losing her temper and essentially calling her boyfriend an idiot could’ve been goofy, but Peregrym and Roop mine some real, ugly emotion from that moment.

Mike: Bad News Bear. C’mon. It was right in your hands. Speaking of which, MacDonald told us that one of the inspirations for this movie was that no movie bear attack had satisfied him, and he wanted to create the bear attack of his dreams. One big Canadian Mountie/Pharrell hat off to the writer/director, Backcountry succeeds at this effort and takes bears off the list of overdone punchline stuff (bacon, pirates, zombies) and gives them a real menace that Stephen Colbert will have to work hard to strip away again.

Max: If you want to watch a very unromanticized scene of a black bear full-on murdering a weeping man, Backcountry is absolutely the film for you. It’s the centerpiece of the whole movie, and it’s brutal. I’d argue that the rest of the movie, while solid, never hits that high again. The waterfall sequence seen in the film’s poster is decently horrifying, but it doesn’t completely deliver on the visceral promise of that image. It’s a short scene that kind of ends up as an afterthought. There’s a lot to be said for Backcountry’s lean 92 minutes, but the last third felt a little by-the-numbers as we watch Jenn successfully avoid the bear and limp her way to civilization.

Mike: Not to get too Action Bronson with my metaphors in this review, but MacDonald cooked a great sirloin for his centerpiece and then kind of skimped on the sides. Shot on a shoestring budget, it seems like a majority of the money went towards the bear attack stuff (which, again, is great), and the sparseness of the production mostly led me to think about what he could do with a little more backing and a more ambitious plot that isn’t tied down by first-time director stuff. One more food thing: the poster was like the smell of a Subway Sandwich Restaurant, but the ultimate amount of time devoted to bear escape drama was like the amount of meat you get in a hero from a Subway Sandwich Restaurant. If you don’t like the characters and become invested in them through the relationship drama of the first half of the movie, you will not feel well-served by the action of the second half.

Max: Backcountry might not be the Jaws the film’s marketing materials imply it to be, but, if we’re going off forced Spielberg comparisons, I could easily see this ending up as MacDonald’s Duel.


Backcountry is currently playing in limited release. It’s available for rental from Amazon and iTunes.

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