For a while, Backcountry is a creepy backwoods-survival thriller that surprisingly appears to take its narrative cues from Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water. As in that masterpiece, this film’s characters embark on a trip into the great outdoors so as to escape their mounting tensions with one another in the civilized world, only to find those tensions potentially magnified beyond repair during the act of supposed “escape” to the wilderness. Alex (Jeff Roop), a hunk who fancies himself an amateur survivalist (the contradiction of those words apparently unclear to him), takes his girlfriend, Jenn (Missy Peregrym), deep into the woods to see a fabled trail that reflects the cherished camping memories of his youth. Perhaps needless to say, the trail springs nasty surprises that effectively parallel the bumps of a relationship that’s beginning to hit the literal and figurative rocks.
Roop and writer-director Adam MacDonald immediately tip the audience off to Alex’s inferiority complex, particularly in his portentous insistence on not taking a map with him. Alex proceeds to strut embarrassingly on the early portions of the trail in a manner that too explicitly testifies to his camping expertise, and his conversations with Jenn gradually contextualize his insecurity. She’s a lawyer, while he works with buddies in landscaping, indulging that fantasy that hounds many of the unsatisfactorily employed: that he will “start his own business.” Suddenly, Alex’s pretensions turn poignant, as we realize that he’s another dude who’s trying to delay his woman’s inevitable realization that she’s out of his league. These fears are intensified by Brad (Eric Balfour), an even hunkier backpacker (with an über-masculine Irish brogue to boot) who appears to serve as the real-deal embodiment of Alex’s increasingly pitiful outdoorsman fantasies. Brad knows the trails better than Alex, has a huge sack of trout slung over his shoulder, and effortlessly and unsubtly commands Jenn’s attention. Inevitably, a big phallic knife is pulled at a certain point, toppling the puckishly stifling sexual tension.
Up until this point, Backcountry is amusing and even occasionally moving; it’s refreshing to see a horror film that regards its characters as people rather than as preordained targets. The film’s sympathies are, unusually for the horror genre, aligned with the female. Jenn isn’t characterized as a rich-bitch careerist, but as a woman who’s earnestly attempting to make a relationship work despite all signs that it’s stalling out. MacDonald, possibly borrowing from Greg McLean’s far nastier Wolf Creek, allows the setting to subtly comment on the characters’ increasing emotional isolation. The greenness of the woods is eerily malignant and desolate, and the sounds of buzzing flies and the shallow depth of focus cumulatively suggest that something’s hiding from the protagonists in plain sight. (The reveal of the menace, in outline as it first brushes up against Alex and Jenn’s tent, is bone-chilling.) MacDonald even fashions an astutely specific homage to Knife in the Water that only die-hard fans will catch: He borrows that film’s visual triangle schematic, which geometrically literalizes the blossoming sexual rivalry. In the best image, we see Alex tucked into his tent in the foreground, and Jenn’s tight-jeans-clad derriere in the background through the triangular slit of the tent’s opening as she talks to an off-screen Brad.
Sadly, the film doesn’t have a third act. After a surprising development, it grows slack and sentimental, reverting to the survival-movie platitude about hardship making you a better human—or something along those lines. Backcountry’s point of reference in the last third appears to be Gravity, which also featured a lone woman looking in the face of death, moving closer to her ineffable inner core. The images become repetitively inexpressive, and MacDonald’s attitude toward Jenn, once unexpectedly modern, turns condescending. By celebrating Jenn’s “growth,” the filmmaker bogs a promisingly efficient thriller down in cheap greeting-card pathos.