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March 20, 2015

The freedom of doing something for the first time is often in the way you don’t yet know what not to do. You haven’t been bitten by failure and compromise yet — and completing anything great requires a lot of compromise under the best of circumstances — so you dive boldly into ideas that a more seasoned professional would steer clear of, or work around. For first-time director Adam MacDonald, that meant shooting Backcountry with real bears.

Did this movie need to be made with real bears? I don’t know. It looks great, though, when a bear attacks two hapless backpackers in a Canadian park. The injuries they sustain on their trip are just horrific, and the images MacDonald and cinematographer Christian Bielz capture are as gruesome as you could want. If that’s what you want, that is; if you’re looking for anything else than a depiction of bear attacks and broken limbs that look bloody as life, keep on looking.

Alex (Jeff Roop) has dragged his girlfriend, Jenn (Missy Peregrym) out on this trip. It’s her first time backpacking — she prefers filling in magazine relationship quizzes — but he’s a seasoned outdoorsman. Or so he thinks, as he refuses a map the ranger offers when they pick up their rental canoe. He’s been here dozens of times, and knows just how to get to the particular vista he wants to show her.

It’s tempting to say that refusing the map is the first stupidly arrogant decision Alex makes, but it’s not. Demanding such a hard trip for Jenn’s first time is, and it’s a tone that he maintains for the whole trip, seemingly wanting to show off his outdoorsy prowess for his girlfriend. It’s a nice, clear message, and it’s immensely boring and frustrating. Alex is so dead-set on making the stupidest decisions that it starts to make Jenn — even as a beginner — look stupid for not calling him on it far earlier.

He really doesn’t have to be this stupid. The “true story” MacDonald based his script on involved a couple who were both experienced backpackers, and the story is a tale of survival when Bad Things Happen out away from the comforts of home. And they can happen no matter how prepared you are, so why do these two have to be the blind leading the blind?

For that matter, why the long and awkward dinner with some guy who may or may not live in these woods (Eric Balfour)? He seems positioned as a creepy stalker dude until he pretty much never shows up again.

MacDonald does place these elements into a pattern of steadily cranking up the tension until it reaches the breaking point when Alex and Jenn are hopelessly lost, but they feel artificial and forced. The tension feels unearned, capped off with a dramatic orchestra sting at the peak.

Backcountry wants to be a suspense story, but it tries to manufacture psychological tension rather than using the physical tension built into its premise. MacDonald has stated he wanted Jenn to “find strength”, but he spends so much time painting Alex as ridiculously incompetent that we see no evidence that she isn’t plenty strong already. This is no shrinking-violet homebody; she has her own career as a lawyer, and for all we can tell she’s good at it, which includes arguing for her positions.

But for all his ridicule of Alex’s machismo, MacDonald buys into the same regressive viewpoint common among outdoorsy types. Jenn is “weak” because she enjoys comfort, and she indulges in frivolities like magazine quizzes that value romantic gestures like breakfasts in bed. The only strength he values is brutal and masculine: the ability to impose one’s will on the world, if only to push back to safety against overwhelming odds. Endurance is forged through trauma, particularly in physical ordeals.

In the process, MacDonald devalues all the strengths that women like Jenn may have developed from lives and careers in the city, which can be every bit as dangerous for them as a marauding black bear. Since they aren’t about raw survival advantage in the wild, they don’t even matter enough for him to bother saying she hasn’t developed them.

Worth It: not really. Cool bear, though.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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