John Boorman’s “Deliverance” gave birth to a new subgenre of films featuring middle class white men who desire the stoicism of life in the wild and of a more direct conflict for survival outside of the office cubicles and golf courses. It also established the genre’s archetypal characters: the posturing weekend warrior outdoorsman who talks a good game lifted from Reader’s Digest versions of “Walden”, and the indecisive, liberal leaning hero for whom the adventure plays as a bildungsroman towards his regression into murder. Both of these archetypes are front and center in Koldo Serra’s debut film “The Backwoods” with an extra dollop of Peckinpah and Polanski just to spice up the proceedings.
Serra’s film is set in 1978 and is about two couples traveling to a remote house in the woods of Northern Spain. The house is owned by Paul(Gary Oldman)who sees himself as a kind of Hemingway figure, leaving London to fix up the rustic cottage and go back to hunting and fishing rather than dollars and cents. He’s joined by the timid Norman(Paddy Considine), who is completely out of his element away from the city. Norman and his wife Lucy(Virginie Ledoyen) are having marital troubles that seem to stem from the loss of a child. Paul doesn’t have trouble with his wife(?) Isabel(Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) since he’s the kind of guy who answers to no one. (NOTE: To every filmmaker working today, this tale of marital discord and sexual power shifts needs to be accompanied onscreen by ©1962 Roman Polanski,Jakub Goldberg,& Jerzy Skolimowski since it all stems from their film “Knife in the Water”.)
Back to the film. Nobody but Paul seems to be very happy to be out in the woods. Least of all Lucy, who comes off as very unsympathetic and manipulative. In one scene, Paul and Norman are having an ice cold conversation with some locals in a bar when Lucy walks in to fetch them, her t-shurt soaking wet from the water fountain outside and the headlights most definitely ON. She seems to enjoy watching her husband squirm as the brutish locals stare at her hungrily. Ledoyen is good in the role, but quite honestly, the character is a total bitch.
The next morning, Paul takes Norman out hunting and kills a rabbit to show him how men are supposed to live. This seems to disgust Norman but not as much as what they find in what seems to be an abandoned barn in the middle of the forest. Hearing some music and a faint whimpering, Paul opens a small door and finds a deformed and frightened feral girl cowering in the corner with a water dish and dirty doll.
Deciding to take the girl out of there and to the local authorities, the pair set themselves up for terrible trouble since it seems some local folks are very angry that the girl has gone “missing”. What transpires is a night of bloodshed and brute survival as Norman has to “man up” in order to protect Lucy and Isabel from rape and to bring the child to safety.
Now, first of all, what the hell is Gary Oldman doing in a Filmax production? He’s one of the greatest actors in the world today and we find him in the woods of Northern Spain working with a first time director in a role that doesn’t exactly use his talents to their fullest? He’s GREAT in the role(and appears to speak fluent Spanish), but “Paul” is just not a character who is going to be remembered when the Oscar Clip is played at Oldman’s AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony.
At least he’s surrounded by some other fine actors including the new Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine. If you don’t know Considine’s work you are seriously missing out on some of the best acting of the last 10 years. The man has given one great performance after another most recently in Shane Meadow’s bloody revenge pic, “Dead Man’s Shoes” and the really great “My Summer of Love” with Emily Blunt.
Serra is a confident and strong director who gives “The Backwoods” the kind of striking and controlled style found more often in the work of more mature filmmakers. Nothing is done for flash or excitement, and everything is placed for specific effect. The film is set in 1977 and this isn’t something arbitrary. It creates the atmosphere of a story having occurred years ago to some people for whom the events may now be just a bad memory. There is a wonderful freedom from the technology which hampers horror/suspense filmmakers today since one cell phone call would take care of most problems in a split second.
But the 1978 setting mostly allows Serra to drift into a certain genre mood, evoking the films of Bunuel and Sergio Martino and to allow for the dreaminess of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” to wash over the film with a pair of melancholy tunes from Leonard Cohen. The violence, when it comes, is brutal and direct rather than the stylized ballets of Peckinpah. “Straw Dogs” makes its way into the film through Considine’s character, Norman, who eventually wields the shotgun with a cold blooded reserve the borders on madness.
Technically the film is very well done, I just wonder if the international flavor of the production with its funding from Spanish, French and English backers may have compromised the script. Something may have been lost in the translation from Spanish to French to English since the film has ambiguities all over. Much of the story is only hinted at by Serra whose screenplay resembles the cryptic writing of Harold Pinter. It’s questionable as to why Serra would want so many things to be ambigious since this doesn’t really intensify the drama as it does in Pinter’s own work but just leaves you scratching your head in confusion.
I mean the story is as simple as they come, but everything seems to be left slightly unfinished, as though, Serra was hoping that actors like Oldman, Considine, and Ledoyen would be able to color within the lines. As the film stands, there’s lots of questions left open in a way that does not inspire deep thought but rather a sense of incompleteness, like a movie you fell asleep watching on late night TV and were never able to find again. That said, the film is very suspenseful and maybe the sense of disappointment comes more from the fact that Serra is so good at creating tension that the lack of a strong resolution just feels wrong. Regardless, it’s definitely an auspicious debut film from Koldo Serra.
Koldo Serra (director) / Jon Sagalá, Koldo Serra (screenplay)
CAST: Gary Oldman … Paul
Paddy Considine … Norman
Aitana Sánchez-Gijón … Isabel
Virginie Ledoyen … Lucy
Lluís Homar … Paco
Yaiza Esteve … Nerea