The backcountry is the place where people test the limits of their physical and mental endurance and learn what they’re made of. By virtue of what it is, the backcountry has certain inherent dangers. Those that crave isolation and rough conditions will find it — and all the hardships and struggles that come with it, expected and otherwise. This, of course, creates an ideal setting for all kinds of big-screen drama that’s baked right into backcountry movies.
A story about a group of friends or a couple on a hike can turn into a life-or-death struggle with a simple fall or the realization that the characters aren’t where they think they are. Here are some of the most emotionally evocative backcountry movies you’re likely to come across that deal with isolation and madness, abject horror and steely fear, and even how the wilderness can help mend an old friendship and inspire a new chapter in one’s life.
Director: Greg McLean
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Thomas Kretschmann, Alex Russell
So, going deep into the largest and most unexplored jungles in the world that’s full of all kinds of things that want to kill bipeds with no real plan or survival experience is not a good idea? Get right the fuck outta town!
The unfortunate byproduct of backcountry movies is that they’re often about people doing really inadvisable things — downright stupid jackass things. Sometimes they’re so dumb you start rooting for the backcountry to take them. This movie isn’t quite that, but it walks the line.
Jungle is based on a real-life story (for the most part) and a grown-up and bearded Harry Potter plays Yossi Ghinsberg, a guy who went on a disastrous Amazon adventure back in 1981 that went south fast when three men attempted to hike out of the backcountry after finding an indigenous tribe in an unexplored part of the rainforest. What follows are a series of small disasters like hobbling foot sores, getting lost, fighting, separating, and a homemade raft being dashed in rapids.
And then, it’s all about being alone. With nothing. In the middle of one of the most expansive and deadliest environments on earth. And going mad in a solitary, starved, Heart of Darkness kind of way.
The Feels: A pendulum swinging between yelling at the characters for being dumbasses and wondering how much time lost alone in the backcountry it might take to drive you insane.
A Walk In the Woods (2015)
Director: Ken Kwapis
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Not every movie about the backcountry has to be a life-and-death struggle for survival. This flick is a little milquetoast, but sometimes you’re need a story that’s a little easy to digest. Don’t worry, there’s still the potential for an existential crisis about your own mortality. If you’ve ever gotten to a point in your life where you feel like you simply have to accomplish something, then you’ll totally get what this one’s about.
Propelled by stubborn old-man energy, aging writer Bill Bryson (Redford) is looking to tackle a big goal after a friend’s funeral lights a fire under his ass. He decides, almost on a whim, to hike the Appalachian Trail. At his wife’s insistence, his old pal Stephen (Nolte), who says he’s in shape on the phone but shows up looking like a plump homeless dude, tags along on what is essentially a backcountry movie that feels like a road trip movie.
With these two actors, you kind of want this flick to have more teeth, but it’s ultimately a non-edgy sentimental story — though the two men do find themselves in a fairly precarious, albeit short-lived, survival situation. The ending isn’t all happy, however. Sometimes we fall short of our goals, which may have been too ambitious to begin with, but what matters is what you take away from the journey. See? Nice and sappy.
The Feels: This one is pretty warm and fuzzy, and if it hits you right, you’ll feel compelled to call an old buddy you haven’t talked to in a few years and start making grand backcountry plans.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox
The definition of “backcountry” changes a bit depending on where you are, but there are a few constants, like wilderness and a bit of the unknown. This movie has all of that, but it’s also a bit too much for some people — I mean, I guess seeing a guy get chopped in half from crotch to neck could be tough for some people to watch. But you have eyelids for a reason.
Gore and horror elements aside, this is a solid Western with a familiar setup — a posse heading into the backcountry to rescue a kidnapped town doctor and a deputy. What they find is anything but typical genre fare: a society of people who took to cave dwelling generations ago and have become, a little less than human.
The throat-bone whistle scream thing they have going on will chill your blood. Plus, Kurt Russell’s facial hair plays an excellent role, as always, and there’s enough dusty swagger and gunplay to satisfy any Western junkie. Add Richard Jenkins’ dry humor for flavor and this is a wild little entry in the backcountry movies genre. And while the violence is extreme, it’s realistic in a way that makes it even more haunting, and that goes for the gunplay, too.
The Feels: The ending is pretty happy — for those who make it. Then you begin to remember what you just saw…and the nightmares come.
Wind River (2017)
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremey Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene
If heavy, depressing drama mixed with great acting and gorgeous, foreboding winter landscapes is your kind of escapism, this is going to be a guilty pleasure flick for you. If you like really well-staged shootouts, even better.
The landscape of Wyoming is practically a character of its own in this story, which stands out among backcountry movies. That makes sense, since it was written and directed by the creator ofYellowstone (and 1883 and the forthcoming Four Sixes Ranch spinoff), Taylor Sheridan. If you’re a fan, you’ll notice some familiar faces from the show in the supporting cast.
It’s a story of murder and secrets on the great plains of Wyoming and the harrowing lives lived by residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The backdrop of this dark tale is at once beautiful and haunting, especially when paired with the movie’s unforgettable score and great performances from reunited MCU costars Renner and Olsen.
This is one of the few modern movies to include some really excellent and nearly realistic hunting scenes, and it hits on a lot of the same issues Sheridan has served up on his hit show. Be warned, you’re going to come away with a powerful lust for every piece of gear Renner is rocking in this one, from his Stetson to his .45-70 Marlin — way cooler than Hawkeye’s tights.
The Feels: A very sad justice boner followed by frantic Googling to see if you can really get a fatal pulmonary hemorrhage from breathing sub-zero air too fast for too long.
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
I absolutely love what Nicholas Cage is doing with this current phase of his all-over-the-place acting career that has careened from Oscar-winning performances to big budget action movies to romances and to the outright bizarre.
Helmed by first-time director Michael Sarnoski, Pig is nothing like you’d expect it to be, and these days, that counts as refreshing. Cage plays a deeply withdrawn truffle forager, Rob, who occupies a small cabin in the Oregon backcountry where he lives as a recluse with his beloved truffle-sniffing pig. His only contact with the outside world is Amir (Wolff), a young guy who buys Rob’s truffles and sells them to high-end restaurants in Portland. Rob gets enough cash to keep him in canned goods, and that’s all he wants.
His quiet world is upended when two assholes show up at his cabin in the night, beat him, and steal his pig. He recruits Amir to take him around Portland as he tries to track down his missing pig, where nobody recognizes him, until he drops his real name, which everyone seems to know. His backstory is gradually revealed in pieces as we learn about his former inclusion in an underground fighting ring and in the elite echelon of the Portland foodie scene, and finally, about the following tragedy that drove him into the wilderness.
Pig is a bit off-kilter, but it never veers into the realm of the absurd. Plus, Cage’s performance is pitch perfect and downright heartbreaking at times as his wounded eyes peer from a perpetually beaten and bloodied face. And while a good bit of the story takes place in the city, this film captures the beautiful solace of backcountry isolation in a way few others have.
The Feels: Holy sweet moses, this is sad, with extra layers of sad on top.
Director: Adam MacDonald
Starring: Jeff Roop, Missy Peregrym, Nicholas Campbell
This is a taught little survival flick that you really should give a watch. It was written and directed by Adam MacDonald in his debut effort that’s loosely based on the real life story of Mark Jordan and Jacqueline Perry. The couple was attacked by a man-eating black bear in the backcountry of Missinaibi Lake Provincial Park, North of Chapleau, Ontario in 2005.
It’s a low-budget effort in the best possible way — stripped down and lean with excellent pacing and a pretty convincing red herring in the first act that is a little too convincing and might put you off, but stick with it.
MacDonald used some old-school camera tricks and excellent practical effects to create a bear attack that I’d argue is more terrifying than the famous bear attack in The Revenant. And modern audiences can relate better to the horror of a pissed-off bruin dragging them out of a dome tent and making a meal of them. Hell, it happened to a woman camping in Montana just last year.
It also plays on other all too real fears of things going wrong in the backcountry, like simply getting turned around and the resulting panic that can take hold. Or climbing down onto a mossy rock wall and finding no more footholds below you as a furious bear blocks the way above you. Not to mention the weird fuckers you can meet in the woods.
The whole thing was filmed in Powassan, Ontario, and in Caddy Lake, Manitoba, so the genuine Canadian wilderness looks appropriate and amazing. Be warned, you’re going to feel some unbalanced hatred for one of the main characters for a few things they do, but karma kinda washes that away before the final act.
Best of all Backcountry manages to side-step a whole lot of survival movie tropes and cliches, which makes for a tense viewing experience; for a change, you’re not really sure how this one’s going to go. Yes, some of the characters make some very bad decisions, but they’re mostly realistic fuck-ups instead of astonishingly stupid moves.
The Feels: You come away feeling like you’ve been through some shit with way less confidence in your canister of bear mace and a sudden desire to buy a .454 Casull revolver and a chest holster. And a compass. And a map.