The poster and the black-and-white freeze frames during the opening suggest 70s spaghetti Westerns (a title card takes pains to point out that this is, in fact, 1978, which is one way to get around that whole pesky cell phone issue that troubles modern horror movies). The character’s motivations play out as if they were in a Western where people with guns have to make choices about where they stand and then uphold them against other people with guns. The women stand by. You might not fully appreciate that this is a Western until the final stand-off in the rain, with two men pointing shotguns at each other in a thunderstorm. It would be almost ridiculous were it not for the reveal about their motivations. The “righteous” man is here out of shame and inadequacy, having just heard that his wife doesn’t love him anymore. The “villain” is here – surprise! – out of a sincere sense of love for the little girl.
Instead of presenting traditional monsters, The Backwoods is about various aspects of the human condition: the Spaniards’ shame at the deformed girl and the incest that created her, Norman’s reluctance to get involved, Lucy’s lost maternal instinct after her miscarriage (big thanks to the film makers for not hitting us over the head with this one!), and even Paul’s acceptance of the natural order.
I love how Gary Oldman plays on our expectation that he’s Gary Fucking Oldman!. He’s going to save the day. As Paul, he’s going to go all Rambo and kill EVERYYYYYONE!!! We look at him through the same eyes as Paddy Considine’s character, Norman, who goes inactive as soon as Paul leaves. But when Paul finally resigns himself to his fate, it’s a reminder that his character ultimately accepts the role of hunter and hunted. Once everyone’s in his place and he sees the karmic chain of events, he’s as placid as the rabbits he shoots.
Paddy Considine is wonderfully bland and hangdog as Norman. The overall arc of the movie is him being able to walk out on his wife. It opens with him fretting about her headache, unable to do much, effete and English as he is. He slips a Leonard Cohen tape into the tape player (the song, There Is a War, will play three times over the course of the movie and the lyrics are no coincidence). More than any of the other character, he is out of place out here in Spain, unwanted, ridiculed, and uncomfortable. The Backwoods ends with Norman leaving Lucy and unnecessarily killing the movie’s most sympathetic character in cold blood. His final shot – pulling the trigger in the rain – is his most important and ineffective. There’s a metaphor for sexual impotence if ever there was one.
And it’s what separates him from Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs. This isn’t just a story about the nebbish guy having his revenge. It’s a story about inadequacy driving an insecure man to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and to then not even know whether he’s doing the right thing, and to do it anyway.
The two actresses are disappointing. There could have been some good material here for the female characters, but the director unfortunately has them working in what’s obviously not their native language. The scenes with the little girl could have been a lot more uncomfortable if the filmmakers hadn’t played it so safe. Putting an adorable young actress in prosthetic gloves is pulling your punches. Imagine how powerful this movie would have been if she weren’t a Spanish version of Newt from Aliens, but was actually inbred, sort of like the little girl in the red hoodie in Aja’s Hills Have Eyes remake.
The setting is also worth mentioning. There’s a really good movie also set in this part of Spain called The Aura, directed by Fabian Bielinsky right before he died. In fact, there are some interesting similarities between The Aura and The Backwoods, involving guns, crime, and bad choices. Fesnadillo’s Intacto also visits some interesting Spanish wilderness. And I’m pretty sure this is where Pan’s Labyrinth was supposed to have taken place. I don’t know, maybe I’m conflating several Spanish forests. But it’s nice to know Europe has its own haunting wilderness areas where strange things can happen.