This indie horror flick finds a young couple stranded in the woods looking for safety in an uncaring natural world.
One of the smartest plot points in Jaws is how much Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) dislikes the ocean. His discomfort on the open sea, evoked by his life preserver and the Dramamine his wife packs for him, makes Brody the least qualified of the three protagonists to face the shark, and also a sympathetic stand-in for the rest of us, scared out of our wits as he prepares to go under at film's end.
Backcountry, Adam MacDonald's forceful feature debut, recalls this plot point. It follows a young couple who go on a weekend backpacking adventure and end up getting stalked by a giant black bear, their fears amplified in just this way. But the homage is no real surprise, as nearly every such predator film released in the wake of Jaws has followed more or less suit.
In this case, it means that Jenn (Missy Peregrym), a lawyer from the city whose fear of the wilderness leads her to bring crucial survival gear. It also means that she suffers the disdain of her arrogant boyfriend, Alex (Jeff Roop). Like other films that might be considered that Grantland calls "indie horror", this one also relies on old tropes to make us worry.
Alex is an outdoorsman, you see, one accustomed to getting along in the wilderness, or at least this is the image that he seems quite desperate for Jenn to see ("Does your boyfriend know how to build a fire with no matches?" he asks her brightly on the car ride to the park, "Yes he does"). He brings her to this park in order to propose to her at his "favorite spot on earth", a small lake at the top of an off-the-beaten path trail head. Unfortunately, his lack of precaution (he eschews a park map from a ranger and sneaks Jenn's cell phone out of her bag and into the car before they embark, in order to preserve the tech-free environment he's craving), and his confusion trying to follow the trails he claims to know cold puts them directly in harm's way.
Their interactions ground the film's horror. MacDonald, known mostly for his acting before the release of this film, which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, works in appreciably subtle tones, especially when it comes to the couple's increasing tensions. Alex might be overly concerned with putting on a good show for his would-be fiancée, but he's not a bad sort. When, on their first night in the woods, Jenn invites a slightly abrasive Irish tour guide (Eric Balfour) to join them for dinner, you can feel his disappointment at having to share the experienced outdoors sage spotlight with someone else, a point the tour guide picks up on quickly and pokes him with repeatedly. In this way, he's a sympathetic figure: foolhardy, but hardly unforgivable.
For her part Jenn, who is clearly making an enormous effort in order to appease Alex by even agreeing to come on this trip -- her first camping experience -- seems to settle down more the worse their situation becomes. Like Sheriff Brody, or Jon Voight's Ed in Deliverance, who also feel threatened by the "natural" world, Jenn is capable of reaching deep into herself in order to endure.
In another time-honored custom of the genre, MacDonald, like Spielberg before him, shrewdly keeps the "monster" reveal until near the end of the film. Our first sign of trouble is a heavy paw print Alex notices but does not mention to Jenn early on their trek. The second is the carcass of a deer presumably left by the bear, gored quite literally to the bone. The third and most intense of these is the shadow of the bear's snout grazing past the sleeping couple's tent, a breathy snarl undercutting the quiet forest ambiance.
There is much in the way of handheld camera work, of course, and agonizingly claustrophobic images of the now lost couple huddling together in the flickering firelight, the dense darkness all around them very much like being stuck underwater in Hooper's helpless shark-cage, the danger coming from seemingly any angle. MacDonald also makes much use of sounds in the night, and their absence, in particularly dramatic scenes, another battle-tested genre standard that still remains effective.
But no matter the deft technical maneuverings and bloody fast-edit sequences when the bear finally does make his malevolent appearance, the film's main source of anxiety remains the lone, terrified figure, thoroughly unprepared for the savage beast who attacks, and faced at last by an uncaring natural world.