Backcountry, Adam MacDonald’s feature debut, looks at first glance like the thriller where People Who Should Know Better Go On A Risky Camping Trip. It’s more than that, but you have to stay with it.
We’ve got the obligatory “based on a true story” title at the beginning. I’m starting to think some writers use that phrase as a get-out-of-jail free card for poor plot development. Do we honestly need to be told it really happened before we can believe a black bear would stalk and attack a pair of isolated campers?
Mr. MacDonald has enough talent that he doesn’t need that kind of crutch. Once we get past a flawed setup, Backcountry is a tidy and effective thriller. There’s good acting, especially from Missy Peregrym. Christian Bielz’ cinematography is incredible.
The story opens with Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Ms. Peregrym) driving to a remote park. He’s the outdoorsman in the family, and he’s convinced Jenn to come for a weekend camping trip at his favorite site.
Backstory on these two begins to emerge, but ever so slowly. Jenn is an attorney, very Type A. Alex is a landscaper between jobs, and he takes most questions as an affront to his masculinity. Naturally, when a ranger offers them a map of the park, Alex turns it down on principle.
As Alex and Jenn make their way to his favorite spot, the tone of the film becomes increasingly sinister. They meet and end up having dinner with Brad (Eric Balfour), a deceptively affable man who claims to be a wilderness guide.
Alex thinks there’s a rapport between Jenn and Brad, and he’s immediately jealous. It doesn’t help that Brad challenges Alex about his knowledge of the park. For her part, Jenn tolerates Brad until he shows a distinctly creepy side. To the mutual relief of Alex and Jenn, Brad goes on his way after dinner.
After Brad exits, the pacing begins to feel more organic to the film. Alex notices bear prints on the trail. At night, they begin to hear ominous noises. There’s one unnerving scene at the tent-luckily for them, Alex and Jenn sleep through it. MacDonald seems more comfortable here, ironically, as the rest of us are anything but.
When the inevitable happens, it’s both hard to look and hard not to look at the screen. That is my unofficial and very subjective way of judging whether or not a thriller is doing its job. Once Backcountry gets into that second act, it does its job and then some. Even so, I keep getting the feeling this film has unrealized potential.
New writers have a tendency to delay reveals, the better to create a big finale. That tendency is evident here. If certain aspects of the plot were revealed earlier, it would be easier for the viewers to establish rapport with the characters, especially Alex. It would help the film’s cause immeasurably if viewers could be on his side. Giving hints of the reason he’s brought Jenn to this park might go a long way toward accomplishing this goal.
As it is, we need to consider what MacDonald has accomplished with his first feature. Backcountry is a very promising start. I look forward to his next.
Theme: (Not My) Mother Nature
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