It’s the late 1970s, before cell phones, before GPS, and before safety, certainty, and rescue seemed well within reach wherever we went. Back then, when you went deep into the woods, you were alone in the woods… or, more eerily, perhaps you were not alone.
In the Spanish-English period film BackWoods (2006, a.k.a Bosque de Sombras), two British couples take a much-needed vacation in the Basque backwoods of northern Spain. The older couple, Paul (the extraordinary Gary Oldman in a classic 1970s droopy ‘stache) and Isabel (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, The Machinist, I’m Not Scared), are weary, patient, and a bit wiser than their more fragile, fractious companions Norman (Paddy Considine: 24 Hour Party People, Dead Man’s Shoes, Hot Fuzz) and Lucy (Virginie Ledoyen, L’eau Froide). The outing seethes with tension even before the two men go out for a hunting stroll through the woods and stumble onto a terrible secret — a revelation that the locals don’t want to discuss.
From that point on, the synopsis sounds like the plot of a ’70s backwoods exploitation flick, and the film tips its cap to Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and their ilk. But, like the best of its predecessors, BackWoods strives for more than action-exploitation. The pacing helps here: the story unfolds slowly, lingering dreadfully in the tension it creates and exploring the moral quandaries that the story raises. It’s a flawed film, but a thoughtful one.
Don’t expect catharsis or clarity from BackWoods. Don’t even expect a neat resolution. This is a wandering, sorrowful story, a film that knows the harsh truth: there are no true heroes, no moral certainties, and no absolutes of good or evil, though there are all too many ways to do wrong. It’s a murky, muddy world we live in, where we can only muddle along and do our best. Our best may not be good enough, but it’s our only hope. BackWoods knows that.
[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]