Backcountry. 2015. Directed and Written by Adam MacDonald.
Starring Missy Peregrym, Eric Balfour, Jeff Roop, and Nicholas Campbell.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Before Pyewacket, director-writer Adam MacDonald debuted his initial feature, Backcountry. The movie is a survival horror-thriller about a young couple – Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) – who go on what’s meant to be a romantic getaway camping in the wilderness, only to run across a starved, predatory bear after getting lost on their trip. Beautiful cinematography is crossed with viciously relentless terror, as we watch Alex and Jenn struggle to make it home alive.
Underneath the great, seemingly typical story is a deeper layer. Alex and Jenn’s relationship represents the reality of many men and women, in terms of how toxic conceptions of masculinity dictate their lives. While playing woodsman Alex gets himself and Jenn lost in the woods, then the real trouble begins. His inability to let go of pride puts them in a terrifying situation.
Backcountry builds up with a personal drama, leading into pulse pounding action. The story works as an allegorical view of masculinity’s destructive elements, using a bear as a symbol of the dangers in letting such elements take hold. Maybe the scariest part is that Alex isn’t a bad guy, he’s indoctrinated into the ways of toxic masculinity, and, like so many real men, what he sees as not harmful behaviour is in fact horribly dangerous— to women and men alike.
“I’ll just walk it off”
There are sinister undertones to the relationship between Alex and Jenn. They seem like such a perfect couple, yet he’s not overly concerned with her consent— maybe to actual sex, not much else. When they first arrive at their woodsy destination, he wants to go skinny dipping. She says no, then he whines: “You said yes.” He refuses to take no for an answer. She joins him after a while and he has his way. Forceful manhood’s on display.
For the rest of the trip he’s either pushing her to do what she doesn’t want to, or ignorantly asserting his will. During a critical moment when the couple realises they’re lost, Jenn checks for the cell she brought in case of emergency, discovering Alex took it out of her bag and left it in the truck prior to leaving. This metaphor is illustrated in danger: his arrogant disregard for her consent leads them into a scary situation, left in the woods with no way to call for help. Also, earlier on he dismisses her bear spray and the road flare she brought as unneeded. This is exactly how most men treat the safety concerns of women, not understanding the relative dangers of being a woman out in the woods severed from civilisation both physically and technologically.
This behaviour on Alex’s part mirrors that of an abusive partner. Particularly the cell, as it not only disregards her consent, it’s also him symbolically, purposefully cutting her off from the outside world, how an abusive relationship operates with the abusing partner controlling the other and how much they’re connected to others. In reality, Alex isn’t actually a bad man. He’s misguided. His reliance on a sense of masculinity as a tool – rather than using common sense (i.e. taking a map instead of thinking you remember a trail you haven’t been on for near two decades) – has damaged him and his decision making. By the time Jenn’s forced to take control of their journey, the damage is done, it’s too late— the bear has arrived for lunch.
“Why do you always have to show off?
The worst display of masculine stupidity comes when Alex sees a bear’s tracks on their path and says nothing to keep his girlfriend alert to the potential danger. Moreover, he ignores the worsening pain in his foot – typical male behaviour – and plays it off as nothing. At night, he neglects to properly dispose of his bloody sock, keeping the bear on their trail— something an actual woodsman would’ve known.
Alex’s behaviour serves as the allegory of the story, about the ways in which men and patriarchal society in general treat women, pulling them into danger because of stubborn ego and foolish, testosterone-driven pride. He basically gaslights Jenn telling her “Don‘t overreact” while they’re stranded in the middle of a forest with a hungry bear tracking them.
MacDonald’s story parallels man and bear in ways. Most evident is in the scene where Brad (Eric Balfour) turns up talking to Jenn as Alex returns from gathering wood. Alex transforms into a territorial beast with another man around. We see men as animals particularly once Brad starts pushing things a little far. Meanwhile, Jenn, as a woman, is sensible, and only “being kind.” This scene illustrates two fragile would-be alpha males struggling over what they view as their territory.
Backcountry‘s excellent irony is that Alex winds up being eaten alive by the bear, leaving Jenn to fend for herself. She’s put in danger, though better off on her own in the end. Funny enough, the bear spray and flare both prove at least slightly useful. Jenn fights her way back to civilisation alone, meeting none other than Brad and various campers on the main trail once she’s out of the thick forest.
The whole story works as one about how negative masculinity can, and does, put women – and men themselves – in peril. It doubles as a specific allegory about the nature of abusive relationships and the dangers inherent in them, too. Every step of the way Alex plays the part he believes he’s supposed to play: the masculine man, the woodsman, the tough guy. The entire ordeal he and Jenn experience is a result of his male pride. If he let her take the cell, and if he took the map a ranger offered him before heading out on the trail, things likely would’ve turned out entirely different, certainly less fatal.
Backcountry is good enough as a humans v. nature survival horror. There’s tons of tension. You can feel the atmosphere get darker as the danger gets closer. The bear attack scene is vicious and totally relentless. MacDonald captures everything so well that it feels frantic, like you’re right there in the tent with the couple.
Bottom line: the story operates on several levels. When a movie about a bear attacking people in the woods can simultaneously hold heavy themes, that’s one hell of a movie! MacDonald has proven, with this and Pyewacket, he’s a formidable talent in the horror genre with hopefully many more projects to direct in the future.