Writing a bad review is a little gift for a movie writer. It feels good to vent after a film wastes ninety minutes of your life and you’re drained from pointing a critical eye to at a work that doesn’t reward your investment. Bad reviews are often eulogies to the shell of a good movie found in many bad ones. Others are a forensic analysis of a baffling failure. All of them are fun to ponder, even if the experience that led to writing them was unsatisfying.
I can find no such joy in writing my review for Backwater. This is a film so un-compelling that it renders the few good ideas it eventually drudges up meaningless. Backwater is one of those horror films that sets itself up as one movie for its first half and then becomes a completely different movie for its second half by shifting who we think is good and bad. Movies that do this effectively shock us because we’ve invested with the characters and their situation as it’s presented to us. Once we’re shown things aren’t as they seem, it needs to achieve a narrative or dramatic goal. In Backwater, the shift happens seemingly just because. It’s hinted at in a very loose way early in the movie that things aren’t as they seem, but in such a throwaway manner . We know nothing about them and are told nothing about them, and the leads’ performance creates neither enough charisma for us to connect with them nor enough snark for us to root for their demise. You wonder why they are out in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why you’re watching them.
Backwater’s set-up is boilerplate to the extent that it feels pointless to explain it. Two kids, Cass and Mark, (from where? We are never told) go camping in the woods…somewhere! We are treated to a few scenes of two youths cooking on a portable stove and prodding each other to swim. It’s all shot in this distant way that makes it hard to connect with the protagonists. There’s really nothing here you haven’t seen before, and Justin Tully and Liana Werner-Grey just can’t conjure up a dynamic besides the girl freaking out and shutting down, and the guy running off to act like a man of action. It’s rote at this point.
Things happen, but only in the most threadbare ways. The kids hear a cry for help in the woods and investigate to find…CLICHES! A creepy tattooed fisherman who says he yelped after falling down? A creepy backwoods cop with a gruff warning about “these parts”. The bare nature of the film really impacted my enjoyment at this point. The visual quality and straw-hut quality narrative makes Backwater feel more like a student film than a full release. I am loathe to enter this line of criticism, because I feel that films should be judged on their ideas rather than the details of their production. In Blackwater’s case, however, the things the film gets right are suffocated under the other elements and the presentation becomes another distraction. The photography is generally pleasing, but features only a few standout shots, most of which involve some neat chase perspectives. More important than just aesthetics, though, is that the film fails to establish a sense of location. It feels like all the characters are just in “the woods,” and the viewer has no feel for the geography of the film. Even a film like Blair Witch, the central conceit of which is people getting lost in the woods, had landmarks viewers could use to anchor their understanding of the scenes.
While Backwater has a cool twist, the material it twists is first lifeless and then later meaningless. Something that makes movies like this great is the unknown element. A movie like Backwater is waiting for something unforeseen to crash into its narrative and change the way the movie works. Unfortunately, the twist comes from what is played like a throwaway line. If it had come out of nowhere, or been hinted at more thoroughly, it would have more dramatic weight. In the final cut, it springs lamely from a first-act line that is barely given any attention. If you want some hillbilly horror action, just throw on Deliverance instead.
Backwater is released on November 10th across multiple VOD platforms.