Jenn (Missy Peregrym) In Backcountry (IFC Midnight)

Jenn (Missy Peregrym) in Backcountry (IFC Midnight)

Written and Directed by Adam MacDonald
Produced by Thomas Michael
Released by IFC Midnight
Canada. 91 min. Not rated
With Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, and Nicholas Campbell

Based on a true story, the feature film debut of actor and director Adam MacDonald follows Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop, executive producer) as they venture into the Canadian wilderness for a camping getaway. Alex leads the way, insisting that his girlfriend, a lawyer, keep her cell phone packed away to avoid any distractions for what he has planned. He wants to take her to a very special, isolated waterfall he fondly recalls from his youth.

The trip is scary from the start, thanks to an effective score from the composers Frères Lumières (translation, the Brothers Lumière, a throwback credit to some of the earliest pioneers of cinema). The two coast easily away from civilization, traveling the length of a vast lake via canoe onto a woodsy shore marked only by a small post on a tree indicating the area as a boat landing.

By late day, they stop to set up camp. While Alex fetches wood to build a fire, Jenn encounters a hiker named Brad (an impressive, subdued performance by Eric Balfour) returning from a fishing trip. Against Alex’s wishes, Jenn asks the fisherman for dinner. A tense exchange escalates between the two men. While Brad offers himself as a guide to the hard-to-reach trail, it is clear that he is a menace to the couple’s otherwise pleasant start. He departs, and Jenn and a determined Alex continue.

They travel for days without a map because Alex insists he knows exactly where he is going. A phone-less Jenn literally stumbles from behind going on nothing but Alex’s word. They soon reach their summit destination, but shockingly they are lost. There is no path in sight. Alex has led them both astray, and their romantic getaway has turned into something far more sinister. With diminished rations, little water, and time clearly not on their side, it is desperation mode for the two of them. Oh, and there are bears. Gigantic, black bears.

There is a moment in Backcountry, as one of these gnarling animals lurks over the unbeknownst couple’s tent, when Jaws came to mind. It is a thrilling scene, but very brief. While the movie succeeds in a stylistic sense, it overall lacks the charge of a truly engrossing survival film.

One aspect of this genre, seen in movies like The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and to a lesser extent in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, is the way they bring out the survivor in all of us. What would we do? How does one build a fire without matches or set up camp? There are bonehead movie moments in this one for sure, such as Alex leaving his bloody sock out overnight to dry, which probably catches the bear’s scent. Or the fact that it rains like a haymaker the night they are stranded and neither camper sets out tarps or bottles to collect water. Some of the best moments in these movies employ a practical science, but even less so, common sense. It’s thrilling to see the survivor not only survive, but cleverly succeed.

Thankfully Backcountry does some heavy lifting in its third act, which finds Jenn in a much more significant role as she employs some desperate survival tactics herself. Missy Peregrym delivers in the mode of last year’s Gravity and even Neil Marshall’s The Descent, as a strong, tired, and bloodied female up against the odds of natural, if not horrific elements.

“One thing I know about nature is that there is no lying,” director MacDonald has stated. He grew up with nature as his backyard in Northern Quebec, and his reverence for its brutality is on display. Throughout there are lurking camera shots that disorient the experience, hiking up the feeling of unpredictability and chance. Yet MacDonald does not use his camera to foreshadow events and, aside from the Jaws example above, he does not toy with the fate of his characters for pleasure.

The real hero is the forest. Nature is the badass. And while a slight focus on a subtly shifting relationship dynamic between the two lovers lends each some weight, MacDonald resists celebrating the hikers or their tactics in this fight for their lives. They remain in danger, but the film neither relishes their predicament nor applauds their gumption.

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