-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
cast: Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine, Virginie Ledoyen, and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon
director: Koldo Serra
93 minutes (18) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Much like one of the other films (Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn)
I have reviewed this month, Koldo Serra's The Backwoods (aka: Bosque de sombras)
is very much a by-the-numbers genre film. Indeed, when the film first appeared on the summer
festival circuit, it received quite a drubbing as an unimaginative and derivative piece of
work that was merely content with going through a list of genre clichés instead of
forging new ground. I disagree. I think that Backwoods has a number of interesting things
to say and the familiarity of many of the film's plotlines actually serve to make those ideas
pop out for any who care to look.
Paul (Gary Oldman) is your classic alpha male. He's brash, decisive, aggressive and outgoing.
Meanwhile his former employee Norman (Paddy Considine) is introverted, glum, indecisive and
cowardly. The two men, along with their stunningly attractive wives are on a holiday in 1970s'
Spain, to a house that Paul's mother grew up in. Stopping off at a local bar on the way, they
note the insular nature of the village, which is outright hostile to the new arrivals. Once
arrived at the house, we learn that both men are having problems with their relationships but
where Norman is unhappy at his wife distancing himself from her, Paul is the complete opposite,
a man who flounces out and ignores his wife when she publicly contradicts him. The following
morning, Paul and Norman go hunting and come across an abandoned house, which contains a deformed
little girl who has been locked away, presumably the result of shameful inbreeding. Isolated and
miles from anywhere, the group start to worry about someone finding the girl there and sure enough
the same group of weirdoes that looked daggers at them in the bar turn up the following day looking
for the girl. Needless to say, the situation quickly escalates and things get out of hand as the
bodies start piling up.
If you're thinking that this reminds you of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), or
John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), then you wouldn't be wrong as we're in very similar
country as the film features local yokels descending upon 'civilised' types, pushing them to
react in a manner that is just as barbaric. Backwoods' ending even has that "So who really
are the monsters then, eh?" element that made Wes Craven's
The Hills Have Eyes
However, it is unfair to see Backwoods as a retread of an old genre. Instead it is more
helpful to see it as a similar film to Fabrice du Welz's Calvaire (2004), in which a
young singer becomes stranded in a village in the middle of nowhere and serves as a vessel for
the town's sin and buried secrets (calvaire meaning calvary, the site of the crucifixion).
Backwoods lacks Calvaire's mystical bent but it too is trying to say something
new and different with a very familiar cinematic language.
Backwoods is a film that is about masculinity. The village that the couples arrive in
seemingly has no female residents whatsoever; a little girl is locked up and the men of the
village refuse to even discuss their mother/ sister. The characters of Isabel (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon),
and Lucy (Virginie Ledoyen), are modern women who freely argue with their male partners. The film's
very first scene establishes this as Paul decides to stretch his legs and while Norman obediently
follows him, the women refuse to leave the car. Paul dominates those around them by being the bigger
personality, refusing to take no for an answer and generally being arrogant and smug, while Norman
struggles to keep up.
It's no accident that Paul at one point goes off with the men from the village, leaving
Norman on his own with the women and the child. Despite Paul being the biggest personality
of the group, the film is ultimately more concerned with Norman who struggles to deal with
his wife's moody temperament, and tries to keep up with Paul and his displays of masculinity
like hunting and having incredibly loud sex while there are people staying in the room next
As the situation with the girl starts to escalate, Norman becomes indecisive and starts
getting bullied by Lucy. He also starts to become obsessed with the role he has is the group.
When Lucy challenges him, he goes off to sulk in the woods, emerging only to kill one of the
locals. But even this display of masculinity and power gives him no peace. Even when he does
take charge and make a decision, his judgement is immediately called into question by the
women in the group, forcing him further and further inside himself - until he resorts to
childish attempts at leadership, such as declaring that he doesn't trust a teenaged girl that
offers them shelter from the storm.
After sitting up and smouldering in the dark, Norman sees a chance to prove himself and
he tries to be heroic, grabbing the girl and heading out the backdoor while the locals
are pounding on the front door. He immediately encounters one of the locals who tells him
to calm down, but Norman won't back down and he shoots the man dead. Even when one of the
locals reveals himself to be the little girl's loving (though embarrassed) father, he refuses
to duck down, toying with the idea of executing the old man just so that Norman can prove
Backwoods is, in many ways, an indictment of traditionally male ways of problem
solving; the tendency to use force, the desire to escalate the conflict in order to win
and the refusal to compromise or to listen to anyone once a decision has been made. Paul
initially embodies those ways of thinking and despite Paul manifestly being an unsympathetic
character, it is clear that Norman wishes he could be just like him. At one point Norman
says that he had hoped to feel better when he shot one of the locals but the pressure to
be someone different never went away. Of course not, because Norman's problem is not with
what he does, it's with who he is.
Backwoods is well shot, it makes the most of the film's beautiful location (Navarra
in northern Spain). Serra, though relatively inexperienced, is also clearly a skilled director
despite a tendency to drag things out slightly longer than they need. Indeed, the original
cut of this film was nearly an hour longer than the DVD version and it's genuinely difficult
to see what more could have been included. Meanwhile, though the film is well structured and
never feels self-indulgent, there are a few scenes that could have been trimmed of their fat,
making the film a good deal more zippy and focussed.
The acting is by and large decent. Oldman is on fine form and makes the most of a part that
is subtler than first appearances suggest. Considine continues to highlight his quality as
well as his physical versatility. He doesn't have much to do other than sulk for most of the
film, but this is exactly what the role requires of him and he does it well. Unfortunately,
Ledoyen and Sanchez-Gijon struggle in clearly underwritten parts and they could easily have
played each others' roles without trouble, but then I wonder if the relatively generic female
roles were not an intentional ploy by the writers.
Well directed, well acted and with intelligent things to say, The Backwoods is full
of suspense and tension but never for a second loses sight of that thematic goal line. It's
definitely worth keeping an eye out for.