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“BACKCOUNTRY” (TIFF Movie Review)

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Canada is a land rich in unspoiled nature. With dense forests and breathtaking cinematic locations from coast to coast, you’ll find many a US western, period piece or summer camp flick shot up here, wherein the producers dupe viewers into thinking you’re watching anything but a Canadian film.

Writer/director Adam MacDonald’s BACKCOUNTRY, which just had its world premiere at TIFF, is a Canadian movie that takes place in the Canadian wilderness, with Canadian protagonists who attempt to get the better of that natural Canadian majesty. That’s refreshing.

But this ain’t no Farley Mowat story of whimsical woodsy struggle. Rather, BACKCOUNTRY is a full blown, full blooded horror film about the apathy of nature and the folly of human resistance in the face of its violent shrug. There are no cartoonish, cross-eyed, cannibalistic hillbillies lurking in these deep, dangerous forests. There is simply the sheer panic of being swallowed by the unknown…and the very real possibility of being ripped to shreds by one very hungry bear.

The film stars Jeff Roop and Missy Peregrym as lovers embarking on a romantic, exciting weekend by a scenic lake along the Blackfoot Trail. Immediately we get the sense that something is wrong. MacDonald prowls the woods with the camera and exploits sound design to create a sense that, as beautiful as miles of trees and rock and water are, there are festering, alien and hostile things nestled within. As the couple settles in, they are visited by a handsome Irish woodsman (the underrated Eric Balfour) who accepts their hospitality only to slowly pick at them, aggressively flirting with Peregrym and challenging Roop to a none-too-subtle battle of macho swagger, one that the harried city slicker doesn’t have a hope of winning.

This encounter is, of course, only foreshadowing extreme tests that the couple will endure as they venture deeper into the forest, lost, terrified, with Roop clumsily trying to hold it together while Perregrym chastises him for bad decisions. Their adventure and personal test of faith climaxes as they are stalked by a monstrous bear, a curious, toothy horror that sees them as prey.

Now, this narrative may seem conventional and predictable and to a degree, it is. In the case of BACKCOUNTRY, it’s not the tale, it’s the teller. MacDonald proves himself here to be a master of suspense, atmosphere and a deft hand at controlling his actors. Outside of Balfour’s slightly spotty accent (he’s otherwise first rate), the acting here is authentic. We truly believe these people are not only in danger, we fully buy their chemistry and we care about them. MacDonald takes the first hour and change of his lean running time to ensure it.

That affection we have for the couple pays off when they face-off against unimaginable horror in the final reel. Trust, BACKCOUNTRY is unsparing when it comes to its violence and gore, never exploitative but difficult to watch. The director understands that when extreme violence is supported by extreme emotion, the connection with an audience is profound. And again, that use of sound, both its presence and absence, is startling.

For what it intends to do, BACKCOUNTRY is an almost perfectly realized film, making the best of its humble budget and exploiting its stunning locations to maximum effect. MacDonald (who is well known in the North for his acting chops) is a major talent, who’s now crafted the best Canadian horror movie in ages.

3.5_skull

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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