#1 When a park ranger offers you a free map, take the fucking map.
Back Country kicks off with urban dwelling couple Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym) leave the crowded metropolis streets behind for a vacation in the forest Alex spent his formative years hiking, swimming and exploring. Upon arrival Alex’s ego gets the best of him as he dismisses a ranger’s offer of a hiking map, insisting he can find his way with nothing more than his memory and innate sense of direction.
While it takes its time in making its point, Back Country is the latest entry in survival horror that reminds the viewer man’s problems are nothing but a drop in the bucket when compared Mother Nature. For all the horror movies populated by supernatural entities, masked psychopaths and demonic killers from other realms, a simple reminder of how ill-equipped most of us are when it comes to being swallowed up by nature can serve as the most terrifying kind of film.
#2 When you want to propose to your partner, sometimes less is more.
Jeff biggest problem is he can’t come to grips with the fact that when it comes to his relationship, he’s punching above his weight. While Jenn is a successful lawyer, Alex bounces between work, latching on to his buddy’s landscaping company while waiting to “start his own business” as Jenn generously describes the situation. It’s his feeling of inadequacy that drives him to find the most secluded, beautiful part of the woods in order to propose to Jenn despite the fact that he hasn’t visited it in close to two decades and loses his way early in their trip. Alex could have just as well proposed on a ferris wheel, or at the couple’s favorite diner, or at a local park, but this nagging sense that he somehow comes up holding the short end of the relationship drives him to create a grand romantic gesture that does nothing but nail his insecurities home while endangering the pair.
One of the great things about Back Country is how far out of the way it goes to show these deficiencies don’t make Alex a controlling asshole. Rather, they make him a human being with all the good and bad that entails. By the same token, when Jenn forces Alex to admit they are lost, she has an epic freakout, emasculating her partner with a vicious list of his flaws. This could have served as the moment where the audience turns on her character, yet everything leading to that point in Peregrym’s portrayal of the character lends her earned sympathy. This moment doesn’t rip the couple apart. Despite shining a spotlight on some very real issues with their relationship, the duo manage to recover and even help one another survive a situation where they are in far over their head.
#3 Sometimes the creepy guy you have a chance encounter with is just an asshole.
An early, chance encounter with Brad (the underrated Eric Balfour) serves as a red herring. After Jenn invites the stranger to join their campsite for dinner, Brad spends the entirety of the time making not so subtle eyes at her while triggering all of Alex’s insecurities. In your typical horror film, Brad would be the first in a long line of back woods rednecks lining up to hunt down the couple. In this film, Brad is just an asshole, but the confrontation is important because it acts as the breaking point in Alex’s list of insecurities that cause him to throw caution aside and endanger the couple. There’s no real villain in Backcountry. There’s just the dangers wrought by hubris, a lack of preparedness and the all too real terrors nature has more than its abundance of.
#4 Don’t wrestle a bear. Ever. It will fuck you up six ways to Sunday.
It’s clear that director Adam McDonald is aiming to do for the woods what Jaws did for the beach. While the hopeless feeling of being lost and the natural and unknown sounds of the woods provide a psychological boost to the film’s horror, the true terror comes in the shape of an 800 pound black bear with a taste for human flesh. This isn’t a bear genetically engineered in a mad scientist’s lab, trained to ride a unicycle while tracking its prey with a heat seeking laser visor cap. No, the bear here is nothing more than a force of nature that has no qualms about ripping its prey to shred with claws and teeth tailored for maximum destruction. When the bear makes its presence known after lurking on the periphery, the auditory experience and the aftermath of its frenzy make for a stomach turning experience. While Back Country takes its time getting to this point, the last reel of the film puts the couple at excruciating peril. The character building of the first sixty minutes give way to a final half hour tear away at the couple’s physical and mental well being.