I’ll admit I was skeptical as Preservation, a horror thriller set at an abandoned national park, began. Plot and themes kept being signposted: brothers Aaron Staton and Pablo Schreiber, on their way to a hunting trip, are clearly rivals for the affections of Staton’s wife Wrenn Schmidt. Schmidt takes a pregnancy test in a gas station bathroom; this juicy tidbit is sure to come up at an inopportune time and drum up conflict. Much discussion of predators, prey, and the survival of the fittest ensues. Schmidt says she’s not the hunting type, and Schreiber tells her she’ll be surprised of what she’s capable of when the fight or flight instinct kicks in. He even delivers a monologue about the Greek goddess Artemis’ transformation into a bear and name drops “preservation”-- ladies and gentlemen, we have a title! And is it just me, or is it getting awfully foreshadow-y in these here woods?
(Wrenn Schmidt, center with Aaron Staton and Pablo Schreiber, is either on the worst hunting trip of all time or the best)
In the end, none of this predictability matters much. Denham, who also wrote the movie, does an efficient job of setting up characters and dramatic tension. His cinematographer has a crisp eye that makes the most of the beautiful, but foreboding setting. And actors Schreiber (as an ex-military man whose toughness and white tank top are kind of mesmerizing), Staton, and especially Schmidt do a good job of selling their characters and the situation as believable. Preservation knows how to stage a good suspenseful set piece: there’s a bit in a Porto-john that’s the most ingenious use of a location since Neve Campbell crawled over a killer in a cop car in Scream 2. (Speaking of Scream, Pablo is Liev’s brother. What was in the water when these two were growing up, and can I have some?)
Preservation also has just enough to say to keep things interesting and resonant. There’s a strong feminist bent to the film, including a reveal of a suited up Schmidt that recalls that final shot of SMG in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer opening titles. Someone could write an academic paper about the bits and pieces of woman-centric content that recur throughout the film, from Staton collaring his wife with a GPS tracker shortly after Schreiber does the same to his dog, to Schmidt’s casual admission that “[the Brownies] kicked me out because I called selling cookies misogynist.” It’ll surprise no one that this seemingly mild mannered Vegan pacifist turns into an ass kicking, mud smeared bad-ass by the third act, but that doesn’t make the transformation any less satisfying. The killers, meanwhile, are casually revealed to be nerdy teens that play first person shooter videogames and text each other incessantly, a not so subtle commentary on today’s disaffected, thrill seeking, and morally bankrupt youth. In the last shot, which I won’t spoil here, Denham lets the whole violence, youth, and womankind themes play out simply and effectively. He makes his point, and does it with brutality and a bit of flair.
Preservation screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival Friday, April 25 at 10pm at Chelsea's Bowtie Cinemas.
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