Studio: The Orchard
Director: Christopher Denham
Writer: Christopher Denham
Producer: Jennifer Dubin, Cora Olson
Stars: Wrenn Schmidt, Aaron Staton, Cody Saintgnue, Michael Chacon, Nick Saso, Pablo Schreiber
Three family members on a hunting trip in remote woods become hunted by a trio of masked gunmen.
MILD SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
Brothers Sean and Mike Neary took two separate roads in life. Mike went to business school and came back with an MBA and a proclivity for chewing out hedge fund managers over the phone. Sean went to the Middle East and came back with a thousand-yard stare and an uneasy smile. Accompanied by Mike’s wife Wit, the two brothers backtrack along their divergent paths for a reconnecting weekend at the remote woodland nature preservation where pop taught them to hunt as children.
Their car engine has not yet cooled when “Preservation” starts setting the stage for what looks like a typical love triangle thriller. Wit secretly frustrates herself with a pregnancy test in the bathroom. From the look on her face, she isn’t pleased by the result. Mike marginalizes his wife at every opportunity, whether it is taking business calls at inopportune moments or putting a GPS tracker on Wit’s necklace the same way he did on the dog’s collar. And the mutually acknowledged furtive glances Sean sends in Wit’s direction suggest Mike doesn’t deserve her, and Sean may have already staked his claim.
A tug-of-war between two brothers, one an alpha male made unstable by the horrors of war, one a clean-cut square focused on fulfilling his American Dream, with their conflicted, keeps-to-herself paramour caught in between. Alone in the woods with hunting rifles in hand, “Preservation” puts on an appearance of heading in a predictable direction where each point of the triangle is prepared to burst from their shells as soon as the right fuse is lit. Although the tale told ends up with a tone of familiarity, it turns out to be not exactly this same one telegraphed by the first act.
Which is certainly not to say that “Preservation” avoids foreshadowing its actual plot well in advance. Sean is never at a loss for hunting metaphors as he and Mike school Wit in the finer points of first-time deer shooting. When not waxing wise about what a hunt can awaken inside the hunter, Sean makes mention of how bears kill as a defensive reaction, lions kill because they are hungry, and man is the only animal that kills for fun. Just in case the movie’s central theme is not yet firmly nailed between the viewer’s eyes, Sean also goes on to recount the Greek myth of Artemis, whose legendary bow-and-arrow encounter with a bear ultimately turned her into a god.
What “Preservation” turns into is a “Deliverance”-styled survival thriller fused with an outdoor form of home invasion horror. The simmering Neary family menace-a-trois is prevented from reaching a full boil when three silent boys in homemade skull masks steal the guns, the gear, and make the Nearys the noobs in a real-life game of Team Deathmatch.
As derivative as the preceding description might sound, a rote roster reading as initially dull due to straightforward characterizations redeems itself through full-bodied portrayals as the story rolls. An accomplished actor himself, writer/director Christopher Denham is well versed in shaping performances capable of transcending their types. His range of experience from Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and Ben Affleck’s “Argo” to more boutique projects like “Sound of My Voice” has given Denham a keen eye for pulling tone from his cast and putting it back into the scene.
As the Neary Family trio, Wrenn Schmidt, Aaron Staton, and Pablo Schreiber work their parts with the sincerity of a stage play. That doesn’t mean overdramatic or unnecessary theatrics, but rather intimately engaged connections with one another that radiate across to the audience. The acting quality alone makes “Preservation” consistently engaging.
The issue cutting down “Preservation” is the typhoon swirl of similar films crowding the genre market. In the past two years, I have written both “trip/holiday/vacation becomes a fight for survival” and “masked intruders terrorize (fill in the blank)” as plot summaries for seemingly countless reviews. Movies featuring colorfully-disguised thrill killers and themes of summoning inner strength for survival have become so commonplace that they have practically elbowed “found footage” asylum investigations out of the “most overdone” spotlight.
“The Strangers,” “You’re Next” (review here), “Torment” (review here), and “Berkshire County” (review here) already adequately cover one side. “Black Rock” (review here), “Eden Lake,” “A Lonely Place to Die,” and others whose names I cannot recall because they blend together cover the other.
The unfortunate shame for “Preservation” is that it is presented with precision, and produced as expertly as any of the aforementioned films. The naturally lit forest setting feels unsettlingly claustrophobic despite the open-air environment. Editing is razor sharp and the music suits the uncomfortable mood. But a fumbled subtext that may or may not be commenting on children and romanticized gun violence, or depicting a disconnect between modern technology and human empathy, comes with the sensation that Denham is misusing an arsenal of talent and context that is above the movie he ends up making.
“Preservation” does exactly what this sort of film is supposed to do. It prompts the audience to feel the plight of the protagonists while licking their lips in anticipation of apathetic attackers finally receiving their just comeuppance. The tension and suspense are always palpable, yet so is the redundancy. “Preservation” is a tightly executed take on the hunted becomes the hunter theme, but there is no getting around the nagging notion of having seen this same scenario several times before.
Review Score: 70