Backwoods (Bosque de Sombras)

Directed by Koldo Serra. Written by Serra and Jon Sagalá. Starring Paddy Considine (Norman) and Gary Oldman (Paul). Also starring Virginie Ledoyen (Lucy) and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (Isabel).

Watched via (note: active as of 16 Mar 2009, may no longer be active at any point afterward).


Two Brits, a French, and a Spaniard drive into backwoods Spain and upset the natives. Yes, they first stop at a bar. This sounds like some cross between a bad joke and a Deliverance clone, and in some ways, those terms can both apply. Not funny "HA!", more funny in the whole "What did they think was going to happen?" manner.

You have two couples, both featuring British men married to a non-British lady (at least I assume that Lucy is French, I cannot recall any point where they verify this but she speaks with an accent throughout). They travel to a house in backwoods Spain, once owned by Paul's family and now owned by him. Paul is the Lewis (Burt Reynold's character from Deliverance) of this bunch. Assumes that he is bit wiser, mentally stronger. Partially a father figure and partially a wannabe survivalist. He spouts various fortune cookie speeches about the truth of hunters, the truth of prey. Norman is the Ed (John Voight's character), the normal, average guy who is a little out of sorts but is willing, in the end, to rise to the challenge if you give him time. The two wives fit similar patterns as the Bobby and Drew characters, alternatively brash, friendly to the natives, stand-offish, and overly confused.

The first full day there, Paul takes Norman out hunting and Lucy and Isabel go for a swim. There is a hint from the girls that someone may have messed with their clothes. This is dropped by what I can see. The main focus is on the men. Paul and Norman stumble upon a house that is mostly abandoned except for a little girl with a deformity, who has apparently been locked away like an animal. Paul's brashness comes to the forefront, and he takes the little girl. Serra shows off his restraint by only barely flashing on the pack of cigarettes left behind. Plans to get to the police are shattered when a vehicle mishaps occurs and the outsiders are forced to retreat back to their newfound home. Then the "natives" (or, more specifically, one family of them) approach the outsiders the next day and bloodshed and tears begin. At least, they will begin, once Serra gets around to it.

Serra does not allow the separation of the group mixed with the onset of the natives to drive the plot into some higher gear with constant screams. Instead, he uses a few light strokes here or there to build the tension, drawing it out. Some might say he takes a little too long to move the plot into something like a real thriller. All told, you are looking at about an hour of film before any sort of speed up occurs. While slow burns work, the pacing works partially against this movie. We have spent too much time seeing what are basically broken characters making bad calls, reacting to things a few minutes too late, and playing with fire. By the time they start amping up the gears, we have been talked into thinking of them as victims and users. People who tease each other and do not seem to have any brush with happiness. The guys in Deliverance were pricks, but they at least seemed to have a good time at the beginning.

By the movies climax, the word "why?" will have been brought out more than once. Why did the one guy go with the family? Why did the other guy refuse to take advantage of the distraction? Why did the family, assuming they knew where the little girl was, not be more direct seeing as they had superior numbers? Why did the women refuse to acknowledge how serious this whole thing was, even with missing party members and sexual attacks?

Without a firm handle on the characters, the movie dissolves from exposing our inner animal to, at best, exposing the peculiar inner animals of five or six broken souls (depending on how many of the natives you feel were properly addressed) except really only about three inner souls (Paul, Norman, and the native father). The plot is intriguing and several key elements are worth watching, but the overall package is a little stretched for time (the movie could have probably faired better at about 80 minutes instead of 100) with even then a few key elements left unaddressed. Two of the three truly high tension moments are more or less directly lifted from Deliverance. The climax, the "gunfight in the rain" feels both out of place and a little too direct; but honestly delivers thrills.

Value and Score

This is a movie that might need to be watched twice to get a feel of the point, but its generally direct style offers little fun in doing so and many will probably feel an itchy fast-foward button coming on (most things missed would be internal reasonings, not the sort of thing you see in replays). Interesting enough to be worth a rental, probably only worth owning if you are big into "man versus nature & man versus more natural man" style storylines. The three main males are all worth watching and the photography is usually high. However, too much of the plot requires questionable decisions and will leave the audience feeling like passengers on a willing ride into powerlessness before it wraps up.

The movie gets an Eh, with possible points added for fans of Gary Oldman, Paddy Considine, and/or Spanish horror.

Rent first before buying. I for one might get a copy, but partially because of musing on the bits in "My take", below. Individual mileage may vary.

My take (note, contains spoilers)

At least the rainy gunfight scene shows three key features of the plot: barriers of understanding have worsened the situation, that a fair amount of damage is caused by not forgiving ourselves, and that nearly no one involved actually wanted to kill people over this. Keep in mind that when I say "barriers of language" I am referring also to how pre-concieved notions of others lead us to do stupid things. Note that Paul seemed to think he could pull one over on the natives, while the natives knew the whole time what was going on. The natives assumed the outsiders were heartless, while the outsiders were essentially doing it out of heart. With one exception, the natives are not so much bad people as confused and afraid that their lives are about to be destroyed. It is because of horror trophes that we assume the family is working for sinister intentions. Outside of Pig, most of them seem to be trying to hide the fact that the little girl is probably a product of incest between the "taller" brother and the sister, or possibly the father and the sister (or maybe, not a product of incest, just a deformed child who is considered to be a sign of some evil doing). Pig, however, with his boorishness, is used as a stooge by the director to make the audience and the characters afraid of the natives. Likewise, the natives are afraid that the outsiders will bring condemnation and judgement upon them, never realizing the outsiders are essentially lost souls themselves. The sense of powerlessness, or impotence, is strong in these characters and most of the reactions they give to things is an anger at themselves for feeling that way. But, by placing a lot of this realization into a tight package at the end, Serra runs a heavy risk of the audience tuning out the overall message and feeling heavily confused by such things as Paul refusing to run anymore (I feel this is because he realized what he had set into motion and was trying to take responsibility for it rather than let it impact his friends).

I think another key point of confusion is the question "Do you understand, now" or such at the end. A lot of have assumed this has a deeper meaning. I think it might, mostly in the questions about what I said above, but I think people are putting a little too much emphasis on it. The man who asks the question just directed a question at Norman in Spanish, which Norman has been shown to not speak. I think the question is best taken literally: "Do you understand what I am saying about going to the police?"

Written by W Doug Bolden

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