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stranger in town - The Backwoods

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May 2008 SITE MAP   SEARCH

The Backwoods
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

RATING: 8/10
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 so memorable.

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 door.

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 himself.

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.
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