Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine, Virginie Ledoyen, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Lluís Homar
Directed by Koldo Serra
Distributed by Lionsgate Home Entertainment
I have to admit I got pretty excited when The Backwoods DVD arrived in the mail. Here was a film with Gary Oldman, one my favorite actors, that I couldn’t recall hearing about. It’s being distributed by Lionsgate, so of course that gave me pause, but the fact that Filmax ([REC], The Machinist, Darkness, among others) was involved in the production offered some hope. I should have listened to my gut.
The Backwoods is one of those movies that look and sound really great, but as events unfold, it becomes painfully clear that the plot and script are paper-thin, full of holes, and agonizingly drawn out. Set in 1978, it opens by introducing us to Norman and Lucy (Considine and Ledoyen), a bickering husband and wife who are on the road following their friends Paul and Isabel (Oldman and Sánchez-Gijón) to the latter couple’s secluded new home in northern Spain. The foursome stop in a nearby village to stretch their legs and have a drink, but the women are feeling testy and decide to wait in their respective cars. The men go into the local bar, where all conversations stop and all eyes turn to them as soon as they walk through the door. We learn that Paul bought the house because it was his beloved grandmother’s ancestral home and that it was her husband who took her away from the area and later taught Paul to hunt from a very young age. We also gather that the locals are none too happy to have outsiders coming around to mess up their delicate balance of power.
Meanwhile, Lucy attracts leers and lustful attention from the town sex maniac after she decides to leave the hot car and cool down by splashing water over herself. It’s the 70’s so needless to say she’s braless, and her wet, exposed nipples make quite an entrance into the tavern when she goes in to see what’s taking Paul and Norman so long. Almost immediately they’re back on their way to their destination, but not before the one friendly guy in the place advises Paul to take a different route due to a fallen tree and recommends they leave Norman’s car behind and travel together. They heed him with regard to the first suggestion but pooh-pooh his warning that the vehicle won’t make the trip. Surely you can guess what happens next.
Finally the group arrives at the house. Things go downhill as infighting breaks out within the couples. But whereas Norman and Lucy seem to have real problems, Paul and Isabel are just acting out a little. We quickly deduce that they are wise in the way of relationships, especially Isabel, and enjoy mixing in dramatic disagreements with raucous make-up sex. But those other two? Asshole and bitch, respectively, they failed completely to engender any sort of emotional connection with this reviewer. The storyline does pull out that old tried and true cliché of her having lost a baby and now being unable to get over it, but even that didn’t elicit my sympathies. Character development is one thing, but way too much attention is given to these people’s marital strife instead of whatever it is that’s waiting in the backwoods to merit calling this film a “thriller.” We find out that answer the next morning when Paul and Norman take off to go hunting. Paul is an expert — cold, detached, and dead-on accurate. Norman is a wuss. Or at least that’s the implication. Personally, I’m in the not so fond of hunting group, but I can appreciate the mindset and discipline of the hunter in an artistic context, and Oldman nails the part. Unfortunately, he’s not as good at navigation, and they end up lost. They come across a seemingly abandoned building and go inside to look around. Here, at last, we get to the crux of the piece.
A dirty and slightly deformed young girl is chained up in a back room. She has no vocal skills and even fewer social skills. She’s totally animalistic and antagonistic toward the men. They decide to do what they think is the right thing: Take her to the authorities. But first they carry her back to Paul and Isabel’s, where Isabel instinctively takes the child under her wing, bathing and comforting her while Lucy remains aloof and uncertain. Events take a turn when four of the townspeople who were so suspicious of our heroes in the bar show up, armed to the teeth and looking for the girl, whom they explain is their niece. Paco (Homar) is obviously in charge, as he and Paul verbally spar with all manner of subtle innuendo. Watching these two talents face off was the film’s highlight — Oldman is the quintessential alpha male approaching middle age, and Homar matches him note for note even if I couldn’t help but think of him as a crazed Hispanic Frasier Crane. The dialogue alternates between English and Spanish, giving The Backwoods an authentic international flavor. However, my enjoyment was brief as the film’s focus shifted somewhat abruptly. A near rape and a bit of offscreen bloodshed ensue as wimpy Norman is forced to come to terms with his manhood and what he is and is not capable of doing when push comes to shove.
If it seems like it took a long time to get here just reading about it, let me assure you it’s even worse watching. The Backwoods suffers from cinematic schizophrenia. On the one hand it’s a serviceable suspense builder while telling its tale about the abused girl and Paul and Paco’s cat and mouse game, but when it veers into Lifetime-esque domestic drama territory, it gets bogged down by its own heavy-handedness. Honestly, I kept hoping for Dr. Ruth to pop by and straighten out Lucy and Norman’s bedroom issues so we could get back to the matter at hand. Isabel does her best to help the younger woman by passing on some words of wisdom — along with a mood elevating joint — but Lucy’s too self-absorbed to accept either. In the past Ledoyen has proven to be a mostly capable actress, and it’s disappointing she’s saddled with such an unlikable role here. Likewise, Considine does his best with the little he’s given to work with. Of the leads, other than Oldman and Homar’s short-lived clash of wills, Sánchez-Gijón is the only one even remotely interesting. Isabel is both smart and compassionate. Had The Backwoods been about her and Paul taking on the locals without the sturm und drang of Norman and Lucy, it would have been a much stronger and better story.
It’s too bad things went so wrong in The Backwoods because Serra could very well be an auteur in the making. He evoked a nearly perfect Seventies feel and sound (the Leonard Cohen songs were a clever choice) and, along with cinematographer Unax Mendía, used a filming technique that initially had me feeling like a voyeur. The camera kept its distance for nearly half the runtime, holding the audience at bay even while ostensibly drawing them in by revealing more and more details about the main characters. It was a refreshing experience until the viewpoint became conventional and familiar. Oh well. Like the few other bright spots in The Backwoods, it was fun while it lasted.
A commentary by Serra and Oldman or even brief interviews with cast and crew would have been welcome additions to the disc, but alas, other than trailers for a handful of upcoming movies I’ve not heard of and look to be equally as mediocre as this offering, there’s not an extra to be found.
Comparisons have been made between The Backwoods and Straw Dogs due to a small number of similarities, but they’re not even in the same league. And I’m someone who isn’t all that much of a fan of the earlier film. While Peckinpah kept the tension mounting, Serra regrettably lets it peter out. Instead of keeping us on the edge of our seats while, as the film’s tagline boasts, “the hunter becomes the hunted,” The Backwoods causes the viewer to become the snoozer as it slogs its way to a futile and forgettable conclusion. Do yourselves a favor and reconnect with nature by leaving this lifeless mess on the video store shelf and spending some time exploring the closest backwoods in your area. And if you find anyone chained up and left to fend for him or herself, run the other way. Otherwise Kelsey Grammer might show up with his inbred relatives and start debating the meaning of life with you!
*an owl hoots in the forest *
2 out of 5
1/2 out of 5
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