A decent cast and OK production values get completely lost in “The Backwoods,” an atmosphere-rich psychological thriller in which psychology and thrills are missing. Transplanting U.S. genre elements to a Euro context can work, but not when the borrowing is as slavish as this, when the dialogue is as ponderous, and when the thesping is (mostly) as flat. But production company Filmax has experience in visually strong schlock-horror fare like this, and the pic remains unaccountably watchable if wearing irony lenses. Horror-friendly territories will love it.
Pic is set in the ’70s, though it’s unclear why. With the aim of salvaging their failing relationship, insecure Norman (Paddy Considine) and headache-prone wife Lucy (French thesp Virginie Ledoyen, over whom the camera drools) travel to Spain’s Basque Country to stay at the isolated old country house that bad-tempered Paul (Gary Oldman) and wife Isabel (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) have renovated. When a stranger enters a bar in this part of the world, it is custom for the locals to stop talking and look up — especially when the stranger is Ledoyen in a damp shirt.
Ensconced in the house, the boys go hunting and lose their dog, while the girls go swimming and lose their panties — though neither loss is ever referred to again. The action sometimes stops while the husbands and wives complain about one another. After half an hour, suspense is momentarily generated when the boys enter a hut deep in the woods and find a young girl, Nerea (Yaiza Esteve, wearing terrific makeup), abandoned and looking distinctly feral.
They return with her to the house, where they are visited by locals Antonio (a wonderfully laconic Lluis Homar) and his sidekicks Antonio (Andres Gertudix) and Lechon (Jon Arino). Much of the rest of pic is devoted to the group’s desperate attempts to get Nerea safely to the nearest village.
Oldman, who speaks decent Spanish, throws himself into his role with characteristic abandon, but Considine is simply flat. The English spoken by Ledoyen (with an accent sometimes incomprehensible) and Sanchez-Gijon is implausibly grammatically perfect: all thesps are up against often risible dialogue that has been carved rather than written.
Pacing through the first hour is often unbearably slow, picking up somewhat toward the end. Camera position often seems to be mimicking Western conventions, as in the well-staged and unusually effective final showdown scene. Crisp lensing brings a variety of weather — fog, sunshine, rain — to picture-postcard life: Impressively verdant landscapes are super-enriched by use of filters, with the final rain-sodden scenes looking best of all. Somewhat bizarrely, songs by Leonard Cohen play a central part, suggesting thematic depths the script never approaches.