'Backcountry': Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
This wilderness thriller should be clearly posted “Caution: Danger Ahead"

Adam MacDonald’s feature-directing debut premiered in Toronto's Discovery sidebar

Knowing that the situations depicted in actor and filmmaker Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry are based on “true events” only makes them more harrowing to watch unfold onscreen in a manner that may give pause to even the most experienced outdoors enthusiasts. Solid performances from the small cast and robust visuals will be clear selling points with audiences seeking the raw excitement of an elemental survival film. 

MacDonald’s feature debut introduces Canadian couple Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym), who set off on a deep-wilderness trek at his initiative, despite her inexperience with backcountry camping. During their first day on the trail in a vast provincial park, they encounter the mysteriously menacing Brad (Eric Balfour), who claims to be a wilderness guide as he insinuates himself into their campsite and proceeds to flirt with Jenn and repeatedly challenge Alex’s backcountry skills. Both are relieved when he pushes off following a tense campfire dinner, but Alex decides to bring his camping hatchet into their tent for the night as a precaution.

The next day there’s no sign of Brad as the couple head for Alex’s favorite Blackfoot Trail, which leads to a pristine lake that he’s familiar with from past trips. Over the next couple of days as they continue toward the lake, with Alex repeatedly extolling its beauty to Jenn, ominous noises in the forest lead them to wonder if Brad might be following them, but there’s never any clear sign of him.

After three nights on the trail their situation becomes frighteningly clear: Alex is completely lost and has led them deep into the wilderness without a map or any viable strategy that can extricate them. Things go from bad to worse after a raccoon plunders their food supplies and they discover that they've entered an aggressive black bear’s jealously guarded territory.

Anyone who’s spent much time pursuing outdoor recreation — or watched Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, for instance — knows that seemingly minor setbacks can spontaneously interact with one other, quickly developing into life-threatening situations. At the outset of their trek, Alex injures his foot, which should be reason enough to adjust their itinerary. He ignores the problem as best he can, just as he does early indications that bears may be frequenting their trail, determined to press on to the lake so he can propose to Jenn at one of his favorite spots. Once they’re definitively lost in the backcountry, however, these miscalculations take on much more serious implications.

Externalizing this sort of escalating catastrophe and dread, which Robert Redford embodied so vigorously in All Is Lost, poses a challenge that the Backcountry cast can only belatedly meet. This is partly due to MacDonald’s scripting, which withholds significant plot developments rather too long to achieve maximal impact. Consequently the actors are obliged to spend much of the film’s first half unproductively thrashing around the woods, since threats to their survival initially diminish after their disconcerting campsite encounter with Brad.  

Once Alex’s foot injury emerges as a serious liability and the threat of a bear attack becomes a real possibility, Roop and Peregrym adeptly switch leadership roles, as Missy strives to fill the survival skills gap after the two lose access to food and fresh water. Employing almost exclusively outdoor locations and widescreen lensing, MacDonald and cinematographer Christian Bielz admirably manage to block and shoot complex sequences with mostly natural light. Their rendition of the climactic scenes that force Jenn into a race for survival are impressively and disconcertingly realistic in their ferocity, which may even convince some outdoor recreationists who see the film to reconsider the riskiness of their pursuits.


Production company: Fella Films

Cast: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, Nicholas Campbell

Director-screenwriter: Adam MacDonald

Producer: Thomas Michael

Executive producer: Jeff Roop

Director of photography: Christian Bielz

Production designer: Pierre Bonhomme

Costume designer: Ginger Martini

Editor: Dev Singh

Sales: Cinetic Media  


No rating, 91 minutes