Review by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
My attention span isn’t what it should be. As such, I rarely watch a movie from start to finish. If the action drags, if I start to feel antsy, I’ll pause it and walk away. I tally those “time outs” at the end of the column, so you know how often the movie is likely to bore you. That is, if you’re anything like me. –The Distracted Critic
BACKCOUNTRY (2014) popped up on my radar when I stumbled across an article pimping a handful of movies “coming soon.” The gist of the article was to provide a showcase for the movie posters and a blurb about the story. The writeup for BACKCOUNTRY promised the most realistic “couple gets lost in the great big wilderness” movie ever made. Claims like that should never be accepted at face value.
We open with a kind of “moving slideshow” as the credits slide past. Backpacks being picked up, being carried into an elevator, being carried into a parking garage, being loaded into a car trunk, a couple getting in the car and driving through various city streets. As the credits close out, the sound comes on and the woman is taking a Cosmo quiz called “Rate Your Boyfriend.” She seems far happier than she should be to inform him he’s scored a zero. Why would she be happy about that? He responds by demonstrating a godawful taste in music by putting some kind of childish yodeling crap on. Then he sings along. Already I’m sick of these two.
Through the wonder of movie magic we travel from the heart of a bustling, traffic-crammed city to an area of wilderness so remote there aren’t even any powerlines, all in less than three minutes. Our pair of protagonists pull into a Ranger Station. Alex of the yodeling fetish (Jeff Roop, HOLLYWOOD, 2011) asks the ranger (Nicholas Campbell, NAKED LUNCH, 1991, ANTIVIRAL, 2012, and Chief Wournos on the TV series HAVEN) about The Blackfoot Trail. The ranger apologizes and tells Alex that the Blackfoot is closed because “yahoos” messed it up. Alex refuses to take a map, and clearly doesn’t care that the trail is unsafe. Behind him, Jenn of the Cosmo Quiz (Missy Peregrym, STICK IT, 2006, and the TV series HEROES, as well as REAPER) has missed all this because she’s too distracted by all the cool camping items they can buy. Did I mention I’m tired of these two already?
Alex makes Jenn take one last selfie of them before they start out. He packs her phone away and zippers it in. They climb into a canoe and row away, and only now, as if by an afterthought, the words “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” flash across the screen. I researched it a bit, of course. The movie doesn’t follow the story it’s supposedly based on. In fact, nothing about the “true life” story the movie claims to be based on actually makes it to the screen. I did find, though, a few “true life” stories that mirror the events in the film a lot more closely. In Hollywood parlance, “BASED ON A TRUE STORY” is at best meaningless and at worst a boldfaced lie. Like “One size fits all,” or “Risk-free trial.”
Anyway… Alex lands the canoe, and when he tries to drag it up on shore he manages, somehow, to drop it on his own foot. He brushes the injury off, then gives Jenn a whistle to wear around her neck. If she gets lost, or if there’s trouble, she can blow on it and “help will come.” She produces a can of bear repellant. Alex mocks her by saying the most dangerous thing they’re likely to see is a squirrel. He goes through her bag and finds a road flare. He mocks her some more, and the bird calls get louder, as if Mother Nature herself is cheering him on.
Okay, hiking, sun glare, more hiking, la, la, la. They set up camp for the night in a clearly marked camping area. While Alex is hunting for firewood another hiker comes out of the woods and strikes up a conversation with Jenn. This is Brad (Eric Balfour, SKYLINE, 2010, and Duke Crocker in the TV series HAVEN). Brad is obviously interested in Jenn, and determined to prove he’s more of a wilderness man than Alex will ever be. It’s not hard. Alex is unsurprisingly threatened by this new guy hitting on his girl, but there’s only so much he can do about it. Brad has a very big knife. Jenn invites Brad to stay for dinner. This annoys Alex, but he doesn’t want to make trouble, so he goes along with it. This leads to the greatest dialogue in the movie, where Jenn mansplains Grandfather Laws to Alex. It is glorious!
If you’ve ever seen a wilderness-themed horror movie, you know how this is going to play out: Either Bigfoot or black bears. Since Bigfoot wasn’t mentioned in the title, we can assume the cryptid won’t be putting in an appearance. As if on cue, Alex spots a bear track near their path. He, of course, says nothing. The couple comes to a fork in the path and Alex opts for the less-travelled one, saying he knows the way. Of course he does. They get lost, blame each other, and before you can ask where the cell phones are, they realize they’re being stalked by something. Why they didn’t even try to make us believe it’s Brad I’ll never know.
This is the first big project of writer/ director Brad Anderson. It’s an okay film, but it’s terribly padded out. It takes forever for things to get rolling, and when they do, they leave you wanting a little more bang for the time you’ve put in with these two characters.
Parts of it weren’t really thought out. One example: remember when Alex managed to drop the canoe on his foot? Well, that comes up again the second night they set up camp. He removes his boot and his sock is covered in blood. Once he gets that off, he yanks his toenail off. Right. If you’ve ever slammed your toe that hard, you know that it’s all you can think about for a while. In fact, the first night after it happened, while he was calmly eating walleyes with Jenn and Brad, Alex’s toe would have been throbbing like a cartoon thumb hit by a cartoon hammer. There’s no way he’d have put off checking it out until the second night, after another whole day of hiking.
BACKCOUNTRY simply didn’t do enough to impress me. I will give it this, though: makeup artist Trina Brink (HE NEVER DIED, 2015) and her assistant, Mary Hokstad, have done some truly effective work. Going into details would be spoiler-iffic, though, so that’s all you’ll hear about it from me.
This ends up being a by-the-numbers entry into the “couple gets lost in the woods” subgenre. From what I can relay for this review, Anderson doesn’t take any real risks and does nothing you don’t expect until after the spoiler point– which is why the rating might seem a little high. Watch this one at your own risk, and feel free to talk with me about it afterwards. This movie deserves a good ole discussion between viewers.
I give BACKCOUNTRY two and a half knives,
And two time outs!
© Copyright 2017 by Paul McMahon