When I saw The Backwoods, direct-to-disc and freshly delivered from the majesties of the mixed bag, Lionsgate Home Entertainment, I saw Gary Oldman’s name on the box and thought: “How far the mighty have fallen.” He used to be known as serious actor, but in the past few years, he's done a ton of smaller parts in big-budget CGI-heavy franchise extravaganzas (Batman movies, the Harry Potters).
What I should have been thinking was, “Good. Gary Oldman is returning to his indie roots,” because he certainly made the right move taking on the role of know-it-all Paul, an Englishman just-moved to his ancestral home in Northern Spain. The Backwoods is a small film, all about mood and character, and not a single computer blip (in fact, the action is set in the late 1970s) is seen.
The story begins by introducing troubled marrieds Norman and Isabel (Paddy Constantine, Virginie Ledoyen) obviously towards the end of a long road trip. They’re in a moving car bitching about headaches and radio songs while trying to keep up with the couple they’re following, Paul and his loving wife Lucy (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). The four friends take a brief pit-stop in a small town where it’s revealed that Paul is ready to fix up the old family estate, Norman doesn’t speak any Spanish, and Lucy is a bit of an exhibitionist. When the quarrelsome quartet runs afoul of the locals at their favorite watering hole, their renovation vacation gets turned upside down.
While the story is more Straw Dogs than the Wolf Man, for awhile I thought I was watching a horror movie. After all, Lionsgate sent to it to me c/o Horror.com, it’s got a spooky cover, and a blurb from Fangoria on the front. There’s also a mysterious, deformed little girl who comes into the picture partway through, and she seems to be captivated by the sight of the full moon in one scene. But The Backwoods is not at all supernatural, nor is it the type of horror movie to exploit the old tried and true misshapen, inbred hillbilly angle. It is not, in fact, a horror movie at all.
Now that you know not to heed the packaging and marketing angle, you might still find this modestly-budgeted, precisely-acted, well-written Spanish indie worth a look. Comparisons to the aforementioned Peckinpah classic, and Deliverance, are inevitable, but The Backwoods tells its own tale. It is not as brutal, cruel, or affecting as those 70s classics, but it maintains the expected vibe.
Oldman, who can often veer over the top, keeps himself well in hand as the condescending alpha male, while Constantine manages to convey layers to character which could, in the care of a lesser actor, come of as simply wimpy. There’s less for the ladies to do character-wise, but the three (I include young Yaiza Esteve as the mute Nerea) do the very best with what they've got. On the side of the "bad guys", the casting and acting could not be better.
Additionally, director Koldo Serra does an admirable job of making the characters' surroundings — a cozy cabin, a derelict barn, the interior of a crashing car, and the rain-soaked forest — almost palpable.
While The Backwoods doesn't move very quickly (in fact, it will more than likely lose a lot of viewers in the listless first half-hour), and it's not as shocking as its predecessors, it's still well worth a look for fans of Oldman, and those interested in atmospheric, character-driven stories about human nature.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson