Why you should care
Because we’re still a little afraid of the deep, dark woods.
The woods are full of different kinds of predators, and debut writer-director Adam MacDonald scares up more than one of them in his new film, Backcountry. A couple at a crossroads in their relationship take a long-awaited hiking trip in Northern Ontario, Canada, with supposed expert Alex leading the way and reluctant neophyte Jenn trailing behind. Everything that follows is as familiar as this duo’s dynamic, but MacDonald fashions something worthwhile out of well-worn parts. The vicarious thrills of getting lost in the cinematic wilderness have apparently yet to be exhausted.
The first threat Alex and Jenn encounter informs the rest of their experience, but doesn’t exactly prepare them for what’s to come. Early on, the two happen upon the sort of stranger that movies like this have been capitalizing on forever. Initially friendly, he quickly reveals a more sinister side that puts the happy-seeming couple on edge long after his impromptu visit to their campsite ends. He even turns his back on them to urinate at one point — a dominant male marking his territory — spurring Alex’s growing insecurity to rise even further.
The color blanches from Jenn’s face as she realizes her “expert” boyfriend has no idea where they are.
Things are calm for a while after that. MacDonald focuses on ambient noise — the sound of a branch snapping in the otherwise silent campsite takes on a mortal terror — as well as some choice musical cues to ensure the audience never gets too comfortable. Rumsey Taylor, who curated Not Coming to a Theater Near You’s “31 Days of Horror” feature every October for a full decade, argues that the threatening woods scenario remains effective because it taps a primal fear of disorientation. “The woods are never specific,” Taylor says. “They are always unfamiliar and abstract, and in watching these films, it’s as though we’re lost out there with the characters.”
MacDonald puts us right inside the tent with Alex and Jenn as they’re awakened in the middle of the night by an unnerving sound that they choose to believe is just acorns falling softly. We’re right behind Alex when he discovers a rather large set of footprints pressed into the mud, and we see the color blanche from Jenn’s face as she realizes her supposed expert of a boyfriend has no idea where they are. Crisp, abrupt edits ramp up tension further — as soon as we’ve gotten our bearings in one scene, MacDonald quickly cuts to another.
This minimalism serves Backcountry well, as it allows for a sequence of violence so graphic and upsetting that it irrevocably alters the entire trajectory of the film. You get the sense that, like his characters, MacDonald is relying on instincts and resisting the urge to complicate things any more than necessary. It’s a barebones approach, sure, but an effective one that serves this survivalist thriller well.