Actor Christopher Denham (Argo, Shutter Island) has come to Tribeca with his sophomore effort in writing and directing after he received acclaim with the short film “Home Movie” back in 2008. This experimentation in the horror/thriller genre gives us Preservation, and the results are a bit confusing, honestly. For a film that tries to use big scheming setup kills akin to this kind of film, Preservation is rather tame.
The setting is a national park preservation, as the title insinuates. We follow the camping trip of two brothers: Sean (The Wire’s Pablo Schriber) and his little brother, Mike (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton), who is accompanied by his wife, Wit (Wrenn Schmidt). The brothers grew up bonding over game hunting trips with their dad: an activity which becomes the recurring theme over the course of the film. Suddenly the three characters, after a solid forty minute setting up their internal drama, are robbed of all their gear and food from a mysterious entity, turning these apex predators into nothing but prey. However, the film’s first act struggles in two different directions, trying to make one quickly sympathize with these brothers, yet simultaneously feel disgusted by them because they just happen to enjoy gory activities– sadistic bear traps and bloodily skinning deer whereas other families play Monopoly.
Aside from the game hunting, these characters have other small conflicts they discuss as the film has it’s cheery sadistic setup: Sean is a war veteran with PTSD, Mike is a workaholic and hates babies, and Wit has a problem with Mike’s workaholism and his babies hate (mostly because the script wants to set up her pregnancy, but also because the script is trying to come up with extra firecrackers, like when things go wrong for the sake of ramping up the yelling). The film doesn’t pick a side on whether the brothers, as characters, are actually likable, thus the audience remains neutral to them and numb to their expendability.
Preservation deserves credit for what it wants its focus to be, as the idea of turning the survival instincts of humans onto themselves is an interesting idea. It it ultimately doesn’t bring anything new to the table and suffers from being too short for such a big idea.
When discussing the thriller/horror genre, one typically expects lame, campy dialogue and a muddled story arc that brings people to the edge of their seats, so it can move on to the killing. The problem with Preservation is that it doesn’t execute any of these categories with 100% determination, such as the aforementioned character development that gets too much screen time. The only one of these setups that matter for any of these characters is Wit’s pregnancy, and it gets the least amount of attention (aside from glaringly obvious visual cues). This is in an attempt to make a big reveal moment, rather than articulating how carrying a new life inside Wit would give her a survivalist drive to get out of the park.
The overall message of how gruesome of a sporting activity hunting is, and the proposal that humans will always resort to this survivalist instinct, does deserve some acknowledgement for how it’s presented in Preservation. Yet, this is most effective in its subtle moments. The focus on Wit in the third act works in depicting her need to push her physical, mental and moral will to protect herself and her unborn baby from the heavily armed pursuers. What doesn’t work: Maybe when Mike desperately looks up at the trees to find a cluster of plastic Aquafina bottles dangling from a tree branch, setting up the contrast of men standing on the other side of the gun’s point as the prey. This is how the big thrilling moments are set up, and then becomes immensely heavy handed. This could work in a film that knows how campy it is, but feels jarring compared to the way the film builds.
In it’s positive moments, Preservation has one realizing where humanity has come from– it’s strengths and it’s vulnerabilities. The overall execution of the idea feels written by an overly vehement animal activist, with no real intention of making a film that would draw people who care about animal activism to watch.