Backcountry is a well-acted film with a familiar premise that pits the ignorance of man and woman against nature. This time around, couple-seemingly-on-the-verge-of-implosion, Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop) leave their urban comforts to explore the never-seen-on-screen Blackfoot trail, secluded somewhere in the Canadian wilderness.
Inevitably, the couple becomes lost and begins a longer-than-intended trip back to civilization, only to cross paths with a large black bear that proceeds to wreak rather gruesome havoc on a momentarily-serene scene within the couple’s tent.
Despite the been-there-done-that premise, Backcountry salvages itself with two strong performances by Peregrym and Roop. For the most part, their interactions are believable and mostly subdued. They still don’t diminish the triteness of the male hubris trope that is central to the film’s plot or our seeming inability to survive without technology – depicted in both a nearly addictive form and an ironically salvific one.
Refreshingly, Backcountry does not simply push its characters into an argument because they are lost. Granted, this happens, as the audience has to see tension before it can root for the couple against the bear, but there is a subtle dysfunction in Jenna and Alex’s relationship before the inevitable verbal blowup. Though we learn Alex’s intent in bringing Jenna to Blackfoot trail is to propose, there’s something unfortunate that he decides to take her somewhere that only he sees as beautiful. Yes, perhaps Jenna would ultimately see the beauty he sees, but her apprehension in venturing into the wilderness – despite being heave foreshadowing – suggests that he doesn’t necessarily understand the woman he intends to marry.
Similarly, Jenna reveals that the ostensible support she offers to Alex as he journeys from job to job in search of the perfect one is little more than a façade to cover the struggles in their relationship. In truth, she wonders why he “always fucks things up.” This adds to the tension that we finally experience between the two when the wave of frustration surfaces, but at least the tension doesn’t come out of nowhere. Rather, it’s kind of always there.
In a testament the director, Adam MacDonald, Backcountry is shot differently from other films in its genre, like Open Water, Frozen, or the like. In many man versus nature films, the focus is often on the ultimate isolation. Here, the focus is on suffocation. Each frame tightly grips Jenna and Alex. There are few wide shots and one of the only sweeping, expansive shots is an aerial to show just how far Alex and Jenna are from their starting point. Furthermore, Backcountry suggests that there is a domicile that is little more suffocating than a tent. The stuffiness, the cramped space, and the illusion of safety only add to the cringe-worthy creepiness emanated within the film. The thought that the most protected place from a hungry bear is a thin, nearly transparent layer of nylon is disturbing unto itself.
In the traditionally romantic style, Backcountry is a fine exploration of man’s ultimate subservience to nature, even if the inclusion of Brad (Eric Balfour) as the alpha male / anthropomorphic man-bear is a bit unnecessary and ultimately silly in a rather non-ironic sense.