Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
In Backcountry, in Powassan, Ontario, and Caddy Lake, Manitoba, Alex convinces his girlfriend Jenn to go camping with him in one of Canada's remote provincial parks. She's a lawyer, while he's a landscaper. He believes his expertise as a woodsman will allow him to shine once he's in his element, and he wants to impress her, because he plans to pop the question while they're on their trip. Nothing goes as he'd hoped, and, despite his rudimentary skills as a woodsman—he can pitch a tent, chop wood, start a fire, and read sign—it's soon clear he's in over his head. In fact, once she's forced to fend for herself, Jenn, ironically, proves herself to be more competent than Alex, whose vanity, eagerness to impress Jenn at any cost, and minimal woodcraft, led him to make a series of poor judgments that, if it were not for their catastrophic consequences, might have made the film a comedy. He makes at least a dozen serious errors in judgment:
He refuses a ranger's offer of a park map. He's been to the park so many times, he says, he has no need of a map. As a result, when he later becomes lost, he and Jenn have no guidance out of the forest.
Annoyed that Jenn returns telephone calls during their trip to the park, Alex removes her cell phone from her backpack, leaving it behind, in the trunk of his car. Once the couple becomes lost, they have no way to call for help.
He leaves Jenn alone when he goes to chop wood for their campfire. In his absence, a stranger, Brad, happens upon Jenn. As Alex himself later points out, both to Jenn and to Brad, Brad could have been a dangerous “nut” who might have raped or killed Jenn. Despite this realization, Alex again leaves Jenn alone when he goes to retrieve the hatchet he left in the side of a tree at the site at which he'd chopped the wood.
When he spies a bear print, Alex doesn't share this sign with Jenn. Jenn has bear spray and a traffic flare that they could use against the bear, but she is unaware of its presence. The bear could (and, later, does) kill someone.
Although he is uncertain of the correct path to the lake, Alex continues their trek through the forest, despite his not having a map, a cell phone, or a weapon (other than, perhaps, his hatchet).
During the night, Jenn hears mysterious sounds. Without investigating, Alex tells Jenn she's hearing nothing more than acorns falling from the trees, onto their tent. He may believe the sounds are the effects of falling acorns, as he says, or he may not want Jenn to think the sounds are caused by a bear, whether to keep her from being afraid or to prevent her from wanting to leave, in which case he is also being deceitful.
After hearing the sounds of what be a bear, instead of falling acorns, Alex refuses to leave the park.
After seeing a broken tree branch indicative of a bear's nearby presence, Alex refuses to leave the park.
After seeing the carcass of a dead deer indicating the presence of a bear—and of a bear that is both starving (bears, otherwise, don't eat meat—and predatory)—Alex refuses to leave the park.
Even after the bear visits their campsite, Alex refuses to leave the park.
Early in the movie, Alex injures himself by dropping the canoe in which he and Jenn arrive at their initial campsite on his foot. He doesn't tend to the injury for over a day, by which time his sock is soaked in his blood. He hangs the sock in a tree, and the blood attracts a hungry black bear.
Alex leaves his hatchet outside the couple's tent. Had he brought the hatchet inside the tent, he would have had a weapon with which to fight off the attacking bear; without it, he has nothing but his hands and feet.
She does not insist that Alex accept a park map from the ranger or accept one herself.
In Alex's absence, Jenn invites Brad into their campsite.
She does not insist that Alex make sure the “acorns” he says are falling on their tent really are acorns.
She does not insist that Alex take her home after she sees evidence of the nearby presence of a bear.
She returns to their campsite after the bear has killed Alex so she can retrieve the engagement ring he has shown her.
Although Jenn, like Alex, makes mistakes in judgment, she is not a woodman and the couple's survival is not primarily her responsibility. In addition, she is not deceitful toward Alex, as he is to her. When she is alone, after Alex's death, her decisions are wise, allowing her to survive the bear and the wilderness.
Despite these mistakes, Jenn also makes wise decisions, even in the face of danger and under the pressure of stress:
She has the presence of mind to use her bear spray and her whistle to twice frighten off the bear before it can attack her.
She bathes her right arm, which was injured in the bear attack, and bandages it.
She sleeps in the fork of a tree's high branches.
She uses her flare to signal for help.
She recalls Alex's advice about eating spearmint berries and Brad's counsel that hikers should climb down the right, not the left, side of the park's waterfall.
She follows a buck, hoping it will lead her to water or out of the forest. The animal leads her to the waterfall.
She makes a splint and sets the leg she breaks in a fall during her descent of the cliff beside the waterfall.
Despite her amateur status as a woodsman, Jenn is more successful in navigating the forest and escaping the bear than Alex had been. His decisions endangered their lives. Some of hers did as well, although most of them helped her to survive her ordeal.
The movie does a good job of depicting the consequences of the characters' respective behaviors, suggesting that what one does results from his or her character no less than his or her motives.
Alex wants to impress Jenn, but he wants to do so because of his own insecurities. He feels inferior to her, because, in the everyday world in which they live the majority of the time, she, as a lawyer, occupies a position of greater status that he has as a landscaper.
Although she frequently defers to him and is eager, most of the time, to support his sense of himself and to shore up any doubts he may have of his masculinity or personal worth, she seems ambiguous about these aspects of his character. When she loses her temper after they become lost in the park, she says she wants to speak honestly to him “for once,” calling him a “loser” who always manages to mishandle or otherwise botch “everything.”
Alex also seems to care less about Jenn than he does about his own fragile self-image. He often rushes up and down the trail, leaving Jenn in his wake to fend for herself in the rough terrain, among tree branches, logs, brambles, and other obstacles. Even after he knows that a dangerous bear is following them and lurks in the vicinity of their campsites, he continues, without regard for his safety of her own, to proceed on their misguided journey, endangering their lives. In preparing for their trip, he took no precautions, failing to bring bear spray, a whistle, or a rifle.
In his mind, he is too macho to need such provisions or to heed the danger signs he sees in the forest. His poor judgment, however, is no match for the starving bear. The animal's ripping and tearing him apart, which is shown in grisly detail, is proof that he is no match for nature. In trying to impress Jenn by proving his manhood, Alex endangers both his life and hers.
At the beginning of the movie, as they are driving to the remote park, Jenn gives Alex a multiple-choice “boyfriend test” published in an issue of a women's magazine she's brought with her. Many of the items deal with consideration. Alex fails the test miserably, suggesting he isn't considerate at all of Jenn. He cares more about himself than he does her. Although he dies protecting her, giving her an opportunity to escape, it is he who, through his own insecurities and poor judgments, put her—and himself—in such a dire situation to begin with. As the test predicted, Alex was poor boyfriend material. Chances are, he'd have been poor marriage material as well. Jenn was lucky to survive the bear, as she was lucky to survive Alex.