I was feeling a little depressed last week when I settled in for my screening of The Backwoods on my laptop. I know, I know, watching movies on one’s laptop is not primo, not if you’re a REAL CINEMA fan, but as I said I was feeling low and liked the idea of holding off on leaving my bed for as long as possible.
- The Backwood’s ranking on the Oldometer: 4.5/10
- Gary Oldman character quality: Paul isn’t a good guy in the slightest, and thus I don’t think we’re supposed to like him as much as I did, but he is a forceful, active character who is wrapped up in his ideas about what Manliness is, and that’s interesting. Paul is an intriguing break in between Jim Gordon roles for Oldman (he still sports the signature stache, even), and is a nice reminder of the powerful characters Oldman can take charge of. He’s pretty darn magnetic in the role.
- Does Gary die in this one? Yeah, and then it’s all downhill from there.
Depression isn’t exactly a new thing for me; it’s hung around since I was a pre-teen (and probably before that), to the point where I accepted it as so much of a part of who I was that its loud attacks began to blend into the dull roar of my head. I assumed it was just the way I was wired; to feel largely incapable of doing what I wanted to do with my time, to spew mental hate speech at myself, to feel desperately needy for reassurance from others and yet find myself occasionally almost physically adverse to being in their company– all of this just seemed like a typical day in the life.
Sometimes I wonder how much time I’ve wasted, over the course of my existence, on being depressed. I’m sure the numbers would be, ahem, depressing.
At my worst, I’d be too out of it to even read or follow any kind of narrative (it’s usually an alarming sign when I can’t even properly focus on the whole of a sitcom episode), but, when my little black rain cloud was keeping itself to that dull roar, I could usually at least do one thing: watch movies, of course.
Thankfully, I don’t tend towards that level of all-consuming depression anymore, but I still lunge for my DVDs when I’m feeling the presence of The Mean Reds (as Holly Golightly so eloquently called it). It’s probably a self-taught comfort thing, like wanting sherbet when I’m sick (does anyone else do that? Just me? K).
It’s nice to dissolve into someone else’s story for awhile, and sometimes, for me, it’s even better to see the distress or emptiness that I’m feeling reflected back at me. This was the case with The Backwoods, a pretty unrelentingly bleak movie that comes at you like it’s 1972: everyone is unhappy and kind of mean, the country bumpkins are Deliverance-level spooky, men and women have no idea about how to communicate with one another, and the leads like their turtlenecks and have what seems like 15 thinly veiled conversations about hunting and prey and sex and death and stuff.
Okay, actually the movie is even set in the 70’s, which makes sense: it’s a bit hard to make a believable story when it involves murder and Evil Deeds in the woods now-a-days, what with cellphones and child protective services. It was nice to not have the distraction of berating the characters for their stupidity (as is your duty as a film-watcher) when they just don’t have the option of technology. The movie is so entrenched in its nod to the era in which it is set, though, from the themes to the style, that it’s maybe more distracting to make yourself stop thinking “STRAWDOGSDELIVERANCESTRAWDOGS” as the story unfolds.
The plot is pretty simple: Husband and Wife who are Having Issues (mainly, she’s apparently emasculating because she’s a meanie and does things like walk into bars full of leery dudes whilst sporting a braless halter that she had previously doused with water) join Gary and his Wife (who also have issues, but Gary doesn’t think so, because HIS lady knows her place) for a country getaway in Gary’s cabin in the Spanish woods for a vacay wildly fraught with antagonistic and sexual tension. Their appearance annoys the locals, who have Been There Since The Dawn of Time and haaaaate English folk, even though Gary speaks impeccable Spanish (really, his Spanish is super impressive). Husband is whiny and excessively indecisive, which doesn’t sit well with his wife or with Gary, who is all about huntin’ and shootin’ and Being A Man.
Eventually, Husband and Gary discover a shed wherein they find a locked-up little girl. She seems Nell-esquely feral, doesn’t use words, is freaked out by the sun, etc. Turns out, she is disfigured. Our British Bros (though Husband is reluctant because he’s lame) rescue her from her shackles and take her to their cabin while they try to decide how to handle the situation.
Irrelevant sidenote: at one point she seems besotted with the moon, so you think maybe she might be a werewolf, but it doesn’t turn out that way (too bad). Nope, just your typical abused wild ragamuffin.
A short time later, the scary rural gothic gang of locals, still hating the British interloping menfolk and as leery as ever about the womenfolk, discover their formerly locked-up kiddo is missing, and go on the hunt. Gary opts to join them as a charade to divert their attention from the little refugee. This means Husband is forced to step up, take a page from Dustin Hoffman’s Straw Dogs character, and Become A Man (according to the 70’s). There’s a rape and a bit of murder and lots of running around in the foreboding forest before the film reaches its (woefully unsatisfying) conclusion.
Now, none of these characters are, I don’t think, meant to be truly likable people. I suspect we’re supposed to be unimpressed with them until we see their reactions under stress. After all, does anyone really LOVE Jon Voight or Burt Reynolds or Poor Ned Beatty in Deliverance? Nah, you just see them in such agonizing circumstances that you hope they make it out alive (though, to be fair, I did kinda hope Jon Voight would kick the bucket in that one– he’s just so annoying with the sweating and the crying and the Kermit The Frog eyes).
The lead couple is boring despite decent performances by the actors that play them, Gary’s wife is far too undeveloped to draw any interest or sympathy, and Gary (as Paul) is a pompous jerk with a little misogyny on the side. The idea was to pique viewer’s attention once the situation gets desperate and everyone onscreen is forced to go on the defense, but unfortunately the film does not succeed in this. Except, of course, when it comes to Gary.
The problem here is that Paul is insanely watchable from word one, even when he is cruel to his wife or condescending to everyone else. He’s SO bizarrely compelling, in fact, that when he puts himself on the line in order to protect the local incestuously produced (or so it’s implied) feral child you root for him to survive. Of course (spoilers) he’s the only one of our cabin-vacationers to die.
This is a fatal (heh heh) flaw in the film; you just don’t hand over a plot to characters that no one gives a crap about when you have another character that’s endlessly charismatic. You just don’t DO that.
The best parts of the movie are when Paul joins the hunting party in his attempt to divert attention from the cabin-dwellers; these scenes are remarkably tense as Paul tries to keep up the pretense that he knows nothing about the girl that they seek, even when the group, after exchanging creepy knowing looks, breaks in half to “cover more ground.” This leaves Paul alone with Paco, the unsettling (though, surprisingly, very well-dressed) Godfather of the labyrinthine woods in which they find themselves.
Paco knows all too well that Paul and his Vacationers (what a great name for a one-hit wonder band from the 50’s) are responsible for the “abduction” of what turns out to be his daughter, but he wants to toy with Paul, even when his target proves to be a worthy adversary. Paco is played by Lluís Homar, who is the other player at work in this movie with real gravitas. When he and Paul go mano-a-mano it’s pretty thrilling stuff, and I wish there had been more of it. Lamely, their showdown eventually wraps up with Paul inexplicably submitting to his death by shotgun, which made absolutely no sense given everything that the movie has told us about his demeanor.
Again, I can see what the movie was trying to do here: Husband goes against his deeply embedded passiveness to become the leader of the pack for the sake of survival; he steps up to the plate and leads “the women” out of the woods, shotgun in hand. Meanwhile, the seemingly self-assured (never give up! never surrender!) Paul practically curls up and dies, acknowledging his defeat at the hands of The Manliest of All Evil Rural Villagers.
But this fails! It fails because this is not what the viewer wants. Sometimes there is just too much of a disparity between what a storyteller would like to have you feel vs. how you actually feel about what you’ve been shown, and that is when the experience begins to feel false and uneven. It’s then that we push back at the story, losing interest in what the narrative would very much like to be getting at. It’s frustrating and dissatisfying for all involved.
That’s kind of how it feels when you’re burdened with something like depression. The person you are pushes back so hard on the person that you seem, as if your own life’s story has been taken over by a storyteller who doesn’t know up from down. I’M supposed to be the hero of the story, you say. An eerie discrepancy begins to eek into your head. Who the heck is this whiny Paddy Considine guy? Why does HE get to carry the shotgun out of the woods? It was supposed to be me. You start to lose interest in the tale that is still evolving around you, except now it’s all happening without you, sometimes even at your expense.
You’re not designed to feel that way. That isn’t your intent, or the intent behind your existence (from my perspective– perhaps this is different for those of you who tend more to the agnostic/atheistic side of things). It’s simply a flaw in the storytelling.
The good news is, even if this chapter is a bit off the rails ala Backwoods, our stories are so long and varied that there is always, always the possibility that your story can right itself. Mine did, even though I still have I-just-need-to-watch-bargain-bin-dvds-on-my-laptop days. There’s no need to let your narrative dither away its potential the way The Backwoods shrugs off Gary Oldman’s credible performance.
I don’t want to go full PSA on you right now, but don’t be Dead Paul. Carry your own shotgun.