★ / ★★★★
Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) go to a national park for a needed weekend getaway. The former wishes to show his favorite place to his girlfriend, a beautiful lake located atop a steep hill—a hidden gem of a place because it just so happens to be away from the main trail. Supremely confident that he knows the area well enough, Alex, despite the ranger’s advice prior to the two starting their escapade, chooses not to bring a map. And when Jenn isn’t looking, Alex takes it upon himself to take out her cell phone from her backpack and leaves it in the car. In a thriller, it is most natural that things go horribly awry.
Written and directed by Adam MacDonald, “Backcountry” is a film that I so desperately wanted to recommend—even a recommendation with reservation—because it is apparent that the writer-director wants his work to be good. There are a few scenes here that work. For instance, a harrowing bear attack is so effective, after watching the sequence I felt shaken. But the movie, as a whole, has a lot of problems which prevent it from becoming a truly terrifying and entertaining trip to the woods.
Although the central performers do the best they can with their respective roles, there is a drought of connection or chemistry between them. It is critical that we believe and feel they are a real couple because a plethora of scenes signify that they are so comfortable with one another that it is probably time to take their relationship to the next level. But intention does not match what is created. I felt the script being acted rather than simply being and so the experience is not immersive.
I enjoyed the decision to introduce a possible threat in a form of a man (Eric Balfour) who just so happens to come across the couple who have no idea what the trip has in store for them. Balfour, despite the Irish accent, is effective as a potential villain because of the way he looks. He does not have to try too hard to come across as menacing. On top of that, he is a solid performer and he knows when and how to break lines of dialogue in order to allow exchanges to breathe, making room for the necessary beats that define a suspense-thriller.
Eventually, however, we are back to the couple walking around and not particularly saying anything revealing about themselves or as a couple. Instead, Jenn and Alex are reduced to rookies who have little common sense when it comes to camping. Hence, watching them roam the wilderness is the opposite of fun.
I was at a loss as to why the writer-director did not create smart characters thrusted into impossible situations. While some might say that this is understandable because it is based on a true story of a couple who went camping in Missinaibi Lake Provincial Park in 2005, I say that this is a work of fiction and one is granted artistic leeway to make the inspiration more cinematic. If Jenn and Alex were always a step ahead of us, that would be enjoyable because we would feel the need to catch up. Smart characters tend to create engaging and worthwhile movie viewing.
“Backcountry” is not an unbearable film but one that is somewhat tolerable. But movies, especially thrillers, should not just be tolerable. It has to be so magnetic that we have multiple visceral reactions as it takes us on a journey. The bear attack may be exemplary here but just about everything else needed to have been elevated in quality.