My admiration for survival stories, both in film and otherwise, stems from my childhood obsession with Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet in elementary and middle school. Introduced to me in my 3rd grade year, Hatchet became a book I would read as frequently as Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Eventually, in addition to the survival stories told in natural horror films that I grew up loving, I was turned on to a vastly underappreciated novel by Stephen King titled The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. In that book, a young girl becomes lost deep within a forest and struggles to survive the elements of nature- culminating in an intense bear encounter (the book is nearly twenty years old, so no spoiler warning is necessary). While watching Adam MacDonald‘s magnificent film debut, Backcountry, on Netflix today, I was reminded of these survival stories, especially the King novel, and it pleases me to announce that MacDonald has crafted a timeless tale of survival that deserves to be mentioned among these genre entries.
Written and directed by Adam MacDonald, Backcountry stars Jeff Roop and Missy Peregrym as Alex and Jenn, a couple from the city who are headed to a national park on a camping trip. The duo arrive to their campsite by way of canoe and begin to unpack their gear and set up for the evening. After gathering firewood, Alex returns to the campsite to find that Jenn has invited a stranger who approached her with fish, Brad (Eric Balfour), to stay and have dinner with them. This act leads to an intense and uncomfortable extended scene of Brad flexing his alpha-male superiority in effectively unsettling fashion, which in turn keeps the audience on edge in regard to if he’ll return to cause trouble or not. Balfour is exceptional in this scene and helps to add a Cape Fear-like element to Backcountry that I was unexpectedly thrilled by.
As their camping trip continues, MacDonald’s script layers our characters with unexpected twists and proper motivation for choices that appear iffy on the surface. When Alex and Jenn become lost deep within the forest (without a map, which is a stubborn character mistake that is unforgivable by way of the otherwise tight script), the couple encounters a bear and are forced into a fight for survival with little hope of escaping.
MacDonald’s script is compact and leaves plenty of tension-building opportunities for him to take advantage of behind the camera. Though the choice to have the Alex character turn down a map because of how well he knows the area (spoiler alert, he doesn’t really know the area well at all) is an eye-rolling method of getting the couple lost in the woods, the rest of the script remains admirable- progressing character development and often keeping viewers on their toes. I appreciate too that MacDonald’s script didn’t overly rely on the bear as a movie monster, instead choosing to use the animal sparingly and realistically rather than in an “it just keeps coming back” type of way. As director, MacDonald builds an ample amount of tension, wringing terrific dramatic performances from his leads (more on that soon) and effectively utilizing the forest setting. Though he relies on shaky cam from time to time, it never proves to be much of a distraction and I’m thoroughly impressed by the veteran competence of the first-time director.
As previously mentioned, the acting in Backcountry is stellar as well. In addition to the creepy performance by Balfour, the chemistry between Roop and Peregrym is fervent and entirely believable, both in the “cutesy” couple moments and in their eventual outbursts. Beyond the performances as a couple though, both actors lend their characters a realism that shines through the heavy shade of the forest they’re trapped within. Peregrym in particular is a revelation and someone audiences will find themselves rooting for.
One of the lesser known IFC Midnight titles, I’d never even heard of Backcountry until I randomly streamed it on Netflix earlier. What I expected was a silly and fun bear-attack movie, and what I got was a gorgeously shot, terrifically acted film about characters who happen to find themselves in a tense and horrifying situation. If you think The Revenant is the only great man vs. bear film from 2015, think again.
Backcountry is now available to stream on Netflix!