- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
omparing “The Backwoods” to either “Deliverance” or “Straw Dogs” probably does it a disservice, even though it’s clearly inspired by both. It’s unfortunate, too, because without those early 70s classics lurking in the background, it would seem far more shocking. (In fact, it will probably play much better to those who’ve seen neither of those films.) As if to pay further homage, it’s even set in 1978 -- although that could simply be a means of avoiding cell phones. Cell phones are such a given these days that when movie characters in peril don’t have one, we immediately wonder, “Where’s his cell phone?” The idea of cell phone technology even being available to the characters in “The Backwoods” would bring the entire affair crumbling down.
Two couples, Paul (Gary Oldman) and Isabel (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), and Norman (Paddy Considine) and Lucy (Virginie Ledoyen), go on holiday to a remote area of Northern Spain. They plan to stay in a cottage once owned by Paul’s grandmother, which he’s purchased and is in the process of renovating. Paul is a man’s man, intent on getting back to nature, while Norman is the reserved city slicker, unfamiliar with the outdoors. Neither man seems to have a particularly good relationship with his wife, although there’s noticeable emphasis on the conflict between the frustrated Norman and bitchy Lucy. Upon arriving, they drop by a rural watering hole, where Norman is immediately heckled by the bizarre collection of locals, only to be “rescued” by Paul’s grasp of Spanish and ease with the neighborhood color. It’s a tense situation, worsened by the entrance of Lucy. Dripping wet, having poured water on herself to cool down, her shapely figure and see-through blouse silences every man in the joint. Leaving the viewer worried about the consequences of Lucy’s bold actions, the group quickly exits and heads deeper into the woods for the cottage.
The next morning the women skinny-dip while the men go on a hunting trip. Along the way the unlikely duo discover a ramshackle cabin hiding a dark secret. The thing about secrets is that they’re supposed to stay hidden away, but Paul takes it upon himself to right what he perceives to be an inhumane wrong. As both “Deliverance” and “Straw Dogs” demonstrated, country bumpkins often play by a different set of rules than city folk, and the latter are just as often ill equipped to deal with the former. To say any more about the movie’s plot would ruin its frequently unsettling twists and turns.
Oldman and Considine carry the piece, and fans of either actor will find plenty to appreciate in their work here. It’s especially refreshing to see Oldman chew on a character so unencumbered by Hollywood flash. The direction by co-writer Koldo Serra is tight, and the cinematography by Unax Mendía striking. It’s also got a good background score, and Leonard Cohen fanatics (like me) will appreciate the implied presence of 1974’s “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” album, as two songs (“There Is a War” and “Lover Lover Lover”) from it are prominently used. If “The Backwoods” has any problems they’re in the script. It isn’t dumb enough to be a standard horror flick, nor insightful enough to be an exceptional psychological thriller. It’s got a very European sensibility (a fair amount is presented in Spanish with subtitles), yet it hardly seems made to appeal to the art house crowd. It unleashes just enough backwards, backwoods weirdness over a 97-minute running time to keep you wondering if anyone will get out alive.