Overview: A couple gets lost while hiking in the Canadian wilderness. IFC Films/IFC Midnight; 2015; 92 Minutes.
Man: In Writer/Director Adam MacDonald’s debut film, a man is ripped apart; mentally, emotionally, verbally, figuratively, and finally physically destroyed. From the start, it is clear that Alex (Jeff Roop) has planned this couples trip into the forest as a desperate attempt to prove his value as a man. Nature, both in film and in a large portion of North American culture, is seen as the ultimate standardized test for scoring masculinity. Having failed to prove himself as a provider for his attorney girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregryn) (Alex’s job as a landscapist is noticeably lesser in value and Alex’s embarrassed face expresses as much), Alex leads the two of them into a getaway along what he claims is a familiar hiking trail. Alex refuses to bring common sense tools like a map and a cell phone and scoffs at Jenn’s protective measures. When a measurably more rugged and tested trail guide (Eric Belfour) happens upon their camp, Alex’s chesty and insecure peacocking leads to a high tension exchange that establishes the movie’s first feelings of dread.
As the two move further along the trail, Alex’s masculine certainty crumbles, and his pursuit of stereotypically masculine affirmation lands the two in exponentially more dangerous circumstance. When a stunning shot atop the trail reveals a breathtaking stretch of uninterrupted foliage and Alex’s biggest error in judgment, the couple are illustrated as being completely cut off from civilization. Alex has failed as a provider, a navigator, a hunter/gatherer, a protector, and — in a deflated last ditch effort — he has failed as a potential husband. But lost in a dense nowhere, these culturally-constructed concepts no longer mean anything. And it is here that Jenn’s explosive verbal attack of Alex is a metaphorical castration; the harsh, uninhibited judgment cuts like a knife through the last, strained sinewy tissue holding Alex’s figurative testicles. After this moment, he is clearly and cleanly neutered. His posture that of surrender, his attempts at recovery uninspired, staring stupidly without any real fight into the face of their most dangerous moment. Alex goes down with high pitched, pathetic, heart-wrenching screams.
Versus Wild: MacDonald’s camera and his narrative are both painfully patient. The longest stretch of the film captures the beauty of the Canadian wilderness and quietly measures the stress imposed upon the young lovers. The movie works through half of its runtime before providing a hint of the danger facing the hikers, but by that point the underlying conflict is already established. Ultimately, when the real horror arrives, the wait more than pays off and its effect is undeniable and earned. After this turn, the film becomes a powerful tale of survival as Jenn becomes a wounded, gritty, and determined fighter. This closing act is one of unendurable suspense and thematic punctuation. In her most hopeless stretch, Jenn absorbs a broken bone that mirrors a minor toe injury suffered earlier by Alex, and she perseveres, proving that toughness on a real biological level has nothing to do with gender-specific concepts.
Overall: Backcountry is a grueling survival tale that wholly deconstructs the Western world’s concepts of masculinity. It is patient and heart-stopping, beautiful and terrifying, and an absolute must see film.