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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Backcountry (Blu-ray)
Backcountry (Blu-ray)
Shout Factory // Unrated // September 1, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $24.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 18, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Although it would be easy, at a glance, to define Backcountry as a "killer bear movie", in execution the movie is a bit more complex. Part character study, part horror movie, and part thriller, the film is an unusually compact bit of tension-building that never really settles into any one box. In some ways, that does make the movie a bit unsatisfying -- what exactly Adam MacDonald is trying to express with the film as a whole is vague -- but in other ways, it's a step above its closest cinematic cousins.

Alex (Jeff Roop) has been looking forward to this trip for a long time: taking his girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) into the woods where he spent several summers as a child, where they'll hike to the top of a mountain peak and enjoying the secluded lake at the top. Jenn is not the traditionally outdoorsy type, but she's willing to indulge Alex's desire to really rough it simply because he's so enthusiastic about it. Unfortunately for the both of them, Alex's thirst for excitement leads them into the path of one of the forest's deadliest inhabitants.

One of the trends that seems to increasingly crop up in modern movies is the disparity between the conflict being advertised and the way the film is actually structured: what seems like the central turns out to be something that doesn't happen until two-thirds of the film are over. If one thinks of Backcountry as a bear attack movie, this could be one of those films, but MacDonald uses that slow-burn to build up his characters, and more importantly, does so using attitudes and choices the characters make in the present rather than flashing back to other events.

The first twenty minutes of Backcountry frequently include moments we see one character participating in but not the other, allowing MacDonald to throw the viewer's loyalty around. When Jenn slips her cell phone into a side pocket on her backpack and Alex looks at it for an extra beat, it's clear what he's going to do next, but it remains a secret to Jenn for another hour. Later, Jenn invites a passing hiker (Eric Balfour) to eat dinner with them, but the viewer learns this as Alex does, returning from the woods with more fuel for a campfire. As Jenn and Alex's moods shift, the viewer is privy to all sorts of dramatic context for those feelings that the other person doesn't necessarily see, which make the characters feel more real and believable. It helps that both performances are excellent, exuding personality (Roop being more tense, with a certain sense of obligation to be "manly", and Peregrym painting a picture of a frustrated person nonetheless earnestly trying to find enjoyment in their surroundings).

By the time Alex and Jenn's situation takes a drastic turn for the worse, the movie almost coasts on the relationship the viewer has built with these people. MacDonald stages the attacks with an unflinching brutality, the kind that lands like a single, succinct sledgehammer blow rather than the frenetic or intense manner that one might expect. Yet, after the shift, he seems to be at a loss as to how to proceed, with further suspense sequences evoking plenty of tension and a sense of endurance, but coming up short in saying much about the characters he's spent 70 minutes building up. Backcountry is a skillfully made, surprisingly engaging thriller, but it feels a scene too short, lacking a fully satisfying payoff for all of the effort it puts into drawing the viewer in.

The Blu-Ray
Backcountry comes with a reversible sleeve featuring artwork that feels like it follows some template, with the image of a bear looming over a backdrop of the forest, with a tiny image of Jenn running through the forest below. On the reverse side, the movie's more evocative poster art is included, of Jenn clinging to the side of the waterfall's cliff face while the bear roars from the peak. The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, with a matte cardboard slipcover replicating the "bear over the forest" artwork, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC, Backcountry's Blu-ray transfer is generally impressive, even if the film's intended look mutes some of the detail and vibrancy of the images. McDonald favors handheld close-ups with shallow depth of field, meaning large sections of the movie are intentionally out of focus. What is in focus is crisp and detailed, although the image also tends toward the darker side of the spectrum, which can make blacks seem a bit crushed even though, again, this is part of the movie's intended appearance. One scene in a dark tent does look a little murky, but it's far from the norm. Colors are generally very earthy and slightly gray, although Jenn's blue shirt does have a bit of pop.

Sound is available in multiple formats: an unadvertised DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is included, while the primary audio is actually DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Tragically, I don't have a 7.1 setup, but the 5.1 channels I can play sound very good, with the caveat that, like the picture, the highs and lows of the track are mostly determined by MacDonald's artistic decisions. Most of the movie isn't actually a pulse-pounding nature-gone-wrong thriller but a story about a couple hiking through the woods, and so most of the track is about ambience and environmental effects, which are rendered with a striking authenticity. Dialogue is clean and clear, and one scene (the same one the transfer struggles a little with) is largely about the characters trying to study the silence around them, which is very effective. When the bear finally enters the picture, the mix does become more aggressive, but even then, it's more about placing the viewer in Jenn's panicked emotional state than "action." English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
First up is an audio commentary with writer/director Adam MacDonald, producer/actor Jeff Roop, and actor Missy Peregrym. This is a lively, funny, and friendly chat between three people who clearly enjoyed working together and have fond memories of a grueling but bonding shoot in the icy Canadian forest. MacDonald talks evolutions in the script over the years since he wrote it, touches on stylistic influences (such as Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines -- clearly a Gosling fan), and challenges of directing (including obsessing over scenes that ultimately ended up cut out of the film). Peregrym's stories are more anecdotal, remembering funny moments (such as Roop inadvertently ruining his attempt to psyche himself up for an intense scene) and working with the cast and crew. A very enjoyable track, although there is one awkward moment about an hour in where an edit to the track is blatantly obvious, with Peregrym's volume noticeably dropping out in the middle of a sentence.

Two video extras are also on hand. "Behind-the-Scenes" (17:25) is a fairly standard making-of featurette, with some good B-roll and above-average talking head interviews. In terms of entertainment value, the commentary is far superior, but this takes a more introductory approach, with everyone involved talking about what attracted them or interested them about the project rather than what it was like to make it. "Bear Shots" (2:01) is short but delightful, a hilarious yet "legitimate" piece of footage MacDonald sent to the bear trainer when asked what it is he needed the animal to do.

The disc is rounded out by a still gallery. An original theatrical trailer for Backcountry is also included.

Backcountry is a good movie that falls just short of being a great one. It's good enough that its failure to be great isn't a nagging one, but it does feel like the film has an ellipsis where it calls out for an exclamation point. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray doesn't have the same issues, offering a fine presentation and a very entertaining audio commentary for fans to enjoy. Recommended.

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