Nature can be a lustrous sight to behold, but it is often blunt and unforgiving, a force that cannot be reasoned with or stopped. The writing-directing debut of Adam MacDonald, "Backcountry" is a ruggedly compelling thriller among the elements, sending its two lead characters on a weekend hiking excursion that goes harrowingly wrong. The story is a straightforward one about a meaningful human relationship colliding with tragic luck, unfettered by side plots or very many supporting participants. By trekking alongside Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) for the duration, the film positions viewers to feel like they are tagging along, privy to not only their journey, but the alternate connectivity and discord between them. Because of this interpersonal attentiveness, their fates come to mean something deeper as danger mounts, then pounces in a flurry of raw, helpless terror.
Alex is excited to take girlfriend Jenn on her first big wilderness hike, but his confident demeanor returning to a place he used to go growing up fails to mask his underlying inexperience and ultimate irresponsibility. Ignoring a park ranger (Nicholas Campbell) who tells him Blackwood Trail is closed for the season, Alex leads Jenn deeper into the woods, reassuring her that he knows where he's going. An injured toe and a creepily confrontational fellow hiker (Eric Balfour) whom they meet their first day prove to be of little importance when the realization sets in that Alex has gotten them lost. Worse yet, there doesn't appear to be any escaping a large bear on the prowl, the hungry animal lying in wait to make its attack.
"We'll be lucky to see anything bigger than a chipmunk," Alex foolishly tells Jenn early on in "Backcountry." His intentions are valianthe wants to put his nervous girlfriend at ease, all the better for them to relax and try to have funbut these words also seem to place an instant hex on their vacation. Choosing not to bring the map offered to him by the ranger, Alex's drive to impress also spells their undoing. The initial tension built up on the first night by the appearance of a stranger who oversteps his boundaries with them is more or less unnecessary once he exits the proceedings and a different, more imminent threat arises. The further Alex and Jenn delve into the wild, natural frustrations are unleashed and hurtful words are spoken. Indeed, Jenn sees Alex's mistakes as a betrayal of her safety, but the love and care they share is enough for them to survive their squabble. What may be more difficult from which to escape are the rotten circumstances they've found themselves in.
MacDonald takes an unhurried, observant approach to unspooling his minimalist narrative, narrowing in on his vulnerable protagonists and the transition of their weekend from a tranquil getaway adventure into a fight for survival. Unflinching in his portrayal of the unthinkably horrific, he ratchets audience fears and anxieties by putting into perspective how defenseless humans are when separated from civilization. The picture's use of the bear as a tangible embodiment of doom is handled with vérité-style authenticity (even the aesthetics of the camerawork by Christian Bielz look closer to a documentary than a feature in these moments). No matter how some of the hairier stunts and confrontations were accomplished, it appears to have aided in driving performances from Missy Peregrym (2006's "Stick It
") and Jeff Roop that sear with shuddersome legitimacy. Peregrym, especially, is put through the strenuous paces in a turn as physically exhausting as it must have been emotionally draining. She goes to those heightened places, though, with every step she takes.
Studio backlots are nowhere in sight during the Ontario-lensed "Backcountry," a film that shows how it's done when it comes to tackling time-tested, tautly conceived cinematic suspense. There will be no confusing MacDonald's script for a groundbreakerit follows a path that is more or less predictable from a point-A-to-point-B vantage pointand yet the attention-grabbing empathy and bone-chilling panic he crafts out of the generally familiar is not to be marginalized. The story's resolution strikes an arguable false note, arriving too neatly for its own good, but most of what precedes this denouement is concocted with ace precision, worthy of a spectacle of well-earned winces and gasps.