AUSTIN -- Borrowing heavily from the rural terrors of "Deliverance" and "Straw Dogs," "The Backwoods," the feature debut from Spanish director Koldo Serra, appropriates the vibe of the decade in which it's set, the '70s. Its preference for simmering unease over frequent jolts limits possibilities at the multiplex, but an appealing cast and convincing mood might attract respectable numbers of older viewers to a limited theatrical run.
Revolving around two English-speaking couples who trek to Northern Spain for a weekend in the country house that one of them is restoring, the pic really belongs solely to the husbands: Paul (Gary Oldman) had a grandmother who lived in the region and thus carries himself with assurance among standoffish locals, while Norman (Paddy Considine) is a more timid sort who can hardly deal with the missus, much less nature's mysterious challenges.
After a familiar-feeling encounter in a local bar, where Paul surprises the regulars by understanding their derogatory Spanish chatter, the four settle in for couples bonding and manly hunting. The latter leads to trouble when the men discover a feral-looking girl (with deformed hands buttressing our assumption she's the product of backwoods inbreeding) chained up in an abandoned barn.
Paul and Norman decide to get the girl to whatever passes for local authorities in these parts, but must camouflage their efforts from a band of men (led by Lluis Homar's intriguingly hard-to-read Paco) who claim to be a rescue party but clearly want to find the girl only to keep her under wraps.
The protagonists split up, leaving the increasingly neutered Norman struggling to find a backbone (a chance to defend his wife, a sex object played by Virginie Ledoyen, only complicates matters) while Paul tries to finesse Paco's crew. Oldman is a standout here, as restrained as he's ever been, bringing gravity to what could have been a one-dimensional portrait of hubris. Trekking through the trees with Paco, drenched by a pounding rain, Oldman helps kick-start the third act action that carries through to the picture's end.
That action might come too late for viewers uninterested in the interplay of personalities -- not very original but well sold by the cast -- that sets it up. But the photography and sound (including repeated appearances of vintage Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack) draws viewers in without overselling the vague menace.
Divine Prods./Filmax/Holy Cow Films/Montfort Producciones/Videntia Frames
Director: Koldo Serra
Screenwriters: Jon Sagala, Koldo Serra
Producers: Guillaume Benski, Julio Fernandez, Aitor Lizarralde, Pablo Mehler, Iker Monfort, Jolyon Symonds
Director of photography: Unax Mendia
Production designers: Juanjo Gracia, Mario Suances
Music: Fernando Velazquez
Costume designer: Josune Lasa
Editor: Javier Ruiz
Paul: Gary Oldman
Norman: Paddy Considine
Isabel: Aitana Sanchez-Gijon
Lucy: Virginie Ledoyen
Paco: Lluis Homar
Nerea: Yaiza Esteve
Running time -- 98 minutes
MPAA rating: R