Judge Erich Asperschlager once went on a hunting trip in a remote region of northern Spain. It was very pleasant.
"There are hunters and prey, Norm. It's the only f***ing truth in this world."
Gary Oldman is a fine actor. He's been in a lot of great films over the course of his distinguished career. While no part of me wants him to die tragically young, I hope that if the unthinkable happens, he makes at least one more movie. I'd hate for The Backwoods to have been his final film.
Facts of the Case
It's the Summer of 1978, and Englishman Paul (Gary Oldman, Batman Begins) and his wife Isabel (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, The Machinist) have invited Paul's business associate Norman (Paddy Considine, The Bourne Ultimatum) and his wife Lucy (Virginie Ledoyen, Les Misérables) to vacation with them in a remote area of northern Spain. On the way, they stop in a local bar where Paul and Norman have a tense confrontation with locals suspicious of outsiders.
The couples arrive at their destination, but the change of scenery does nothing to diffuse lingering problems between the squabbling Norman and Lucy. The next day, while out hunting, Paul and Norman happen upon an abandoned cottage in the woods. Inside, they discover a disfigured young girl, chained and locked in a small, dark room. Paul insists they take her back to the house and then on to the authorities. But their plan is derailed when the men from the bar, led by the formidable Paco (Lluís Homar, Fermat's Room) show up at the house, armed with shotguns and looking for the girl.
In the early going, The Backwoods seems to have promise. There's nothing like being in the middle of a nowhere populated by hostile xenophobes to get the ol' skin crawling. Heck, I don't even like wearing my Red Sox hat in New York. Add in a creepy directorial style that places the camera at a distance, making it look like the main characters are under constant surveillance, and you've got the perfect set-up for a nice little thriller.
Problem is, the chills never develop past the set-up stage. The atmosphere remains creepy, but hardly anything happens. When the locals show up at the house, it puts the main characters in various peril, but nothing that builds any real tension. In fact, most of what happens seems haphazard in a way that suggests no one knows what they're doing. Early in the film, Paul lectures Norman on hunters and prey, but the lesson is a weak metaphor for what follows. The eventual back-and-forth between Paul and Norman and the men from the village feels less like a well-played chess match than it does eight-year-olds running around the backyard yelling "Bang! Bang!"
Another problem with the film is that the relationship drama subplots don't add anything. We know from the first frame that Norman and Lucy's marriage is on the rocks, and, at one point, we learn something that suggests why, but the overwrought dialogue and iffy acting makes it difficult to care. I mostly just wished everyone would stop talking and get on with the action.
Though it feels somewhat piggish to say so, it's obvious why Sánchez-Gijón and Ledoyen were cast in the film, and it wasn't been for their acting abilities. In Ledoyen's case, I'm guessing her audition was an early scene in which her wetted white shirt reveals that the costume budget didn't include money for bras. This is, unfortunately, a movie written for the male actors, especially Oldman and Homar. With little to do, the female characters alternate between sex objects and plot points.
But by far the biggest problem with The Backwoods is that what little momentum builds in the first hour completely fizzles in the final thirty minutes. I don't want to spoil too much, but the worst decision writer Jon Sagalá and writer-director Koldo Serra made was to leave one of the most milquetoast protagonists in recent cinematic memory in charge of carrying the film all the way to its incomprehensible ending.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer and surround sound do the job, though neither is particularly outstanding (points, though, for featuring Leonard Cohen in the soundtrack). And I'm guessing the reason this Lionsgate release is so bare bones is because bonus features had not yet been invented in 1978.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As underwhelming as this film is, there are much worse thrillers out there. In some ways, The Backwoods is more disappointing because it seems so promising. The early scene at the bar, for instance, is legitimately nervewracking, and the atmospheric direction does an effective job of heightening what little tension there is in the first half of the film. And while this might not be Oldman's best career move, he does what he can with the material (though it doesn't say much for the film that the most sympathetic character is the one arguably responsible for putting everyone in danger).
Like the red sportscar Norman abandons by the side of the road early in the film, The Backwoods looks pretty, but ultimately goes nowhere. The film wants to be a continental Straw Dogs, but never capitalizes on its villagers v. outsiders set-up—squandering early momentum as it sputters to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Who gave these guys gun permits, anyway? Guilty.
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