It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“When I was a kid, this was my favorite place in the whole world.” Under normal life circumstances, this is a harmless enough utterance. In a motion picture in which the place is a national park that the ostensible hero insists he remembers so well that he refuses the offer of a map from a ranger upon arriving, it is a nearly certain indicator of not-to-be-favorited events to come.
And so is the case of “Backcountry,” a very-well executed wilderness thriller written and directed by Adam MacDonald and apparently inspired by a true story that the movie made me very much not want to look up, which I suppose may be taken by some to be a token of its effectiveness. The movie is sufficiently potent in its depiction of the perils of unsupervised camping that I’ve actually seen one reviewer go so far as to air suspicions that the movie has some kind of “let’s just turn all this forest into a parking lot” agenda. I don’t think the movie goes quite that far. Rather, its message, if it can be said to have one, is, “Don’t go camping with an idiot.”
The movie opens with Attractive Young Canadian People Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) bantering as they drive to a wilderness destination. She’s jokingly reading from a “rate your boyfriend” feature in a magazine; he’s asking if “can start a fire without matches” is among the quiz’s criteria. Once parked, Alex commits the first of many mishaps by refusing the map offer. While Alex looks at Jenn as being a bit too buttoned-up (she’s a lawyer and stuff), he is committed to the idea of impressing her with all manner of Canuck Tarzan stuff, which he intends to climax by proposing marriage.
Best-laid plans continue to go awry. Jenn’s not to enthusiastic about skinny dipping in the old swimming hole. A little later, as he’s chopping wood, Alex hears voices; why, it’s Jenn speaking to some buff Irish fellow named Brad (Eric Balfour) who describes himself as a wilderness guide. That we meet this fellow in the middle of his conversation with the female member of the couple is one of director MacDonald’s not-unfamiliar directorial feints. What’s this interloper going to bring to the party? Well, fresh fish, for one thing. Sequences of shots that indirectly juxtapose Alex and Jenn’s shiny newly-purchased camping equipment with the messy business of fish-gutting convey a sense of disorder that can’t be tamed. Later, sitting by the fire, Alex stammers when the stately, studly Brad asks him how he makes a living. “Right now my buddy has a landscaping business…”
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