Director Christopher Denham's sophomore effort, Preservation, is a classic survival thriller. While it shows a decent amount of strength and promise with its decently solid cast, cinematography, and even music, it falls behind with a painfully stereotypical script and a message that, while relevant, is a bit too plainspoken.
The story follows busy finance manager Mike (Aaron Staton) and his anesthesiologist wife Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) as they head into the woods with Mike's brother, Sean (Pablo Schreiber), on a camping trip that Mike hopes will help Sean through his transition back into normal life after being mysteriously discharged from the military. After they wake up the next morning with all of their camping supplies and weapons missing they must decide if they will fracture apart out of jealousy and paranoia or band together to fight the unseen hunters...
** SPOILERS! **
The movie opens right up with cliche after cliche and they never really stop. The camera slowly follows the gang's truck as it winds its way deeper into the wilderness... two brothers bonding over stories of their reckless youth in the front seat - pausing only to clink their beer bottles together in cheers - as the one brother's wife expresses her desire to go antiquing from the back... ignoring a "closed" sign on a state park and charging on undeterred... you get the idea (and this is only maybe the first 10 minutes).
We also find out on the way in how much of a workaholic Mike is and how much it frustrates Wit who, naturally, is pregnant but unsure how to tell him. Sean is your stereotypical grizzled veteran and we never do find out why he was discharged from the military, but he makes no secret of how many tips he picked up from his life of combat or how much he prefers to be off the grid, relying only on his own instincts (and his German shepherd). He also doesn't hide his obvious attraction to Wit. He makes countless deep, foreboding comments about the art of hunting - "just because you don't see 'em doesn't mean they're not there - we're not watching them, they're watching us", or his musing on the fact that humans are the only species who kill because it's fun, for example - and you really do get a feeling initially that he might be the one behind the missing gear, whether it be intentionally or through him acting out against imagined forces brought on by his PTSD. I think it would have made the film a bit more interesting (and unique) if that had been the case.
The whole "cat and mouse" aspect of the movie was fun, honestly, as well as terrifying. The idea that there are people hiding amongst the trees, able to see you even if you can't see them, is bone-chilling. The reveal of who the hunters really were - essentially just bored, media-desensitized kids - was even more so. That point was driven home a little bit too hard at times - the teenagers alternating between playing violent first person shooter games on their phones and texting each other while they're two feet away - but I think the casualness of them out making other humans their prey before they head home for dinner with their parents made them an even more frightening killer than a more experienced, calculated one. The final killer stepping away from tying Wit up with jumper cables to have a cheerful chat with his mom, apologizing for making her worry, was a clever addition, I thought.
Most horror movies - especially ones where people are being chased by killers - give in to the typical cliches at least once or twice. This one took a bit more liberty with that, having ALL THREE of the protagonists make the same fatal mistake: turning their back on an assailant that is incorrectly assumed to be down for the count. I can understand Wit or Mike doing this - they are presumed to have no real experience in this type of scenario - but the combat veteran who spends most of his dialogue mentioning his hunting skills being the first one to make it? How does that work? Mike spends no time wondering why their water is hung in an odd cluster from a tree and steps on an animal trap before later deciding a plastic Port-a-Potty (that he is loudly shaking while trying to obtain a weapon) would be the absolute best place to hide. Even the killers themselves don't seem to stand up to logic - letting themselves be lured into the exact same traps they've been setting, not hearing Mike rip the top off the Port-a-Potty mere feet above their heads.
I always love a strong female character, especially when she's the lone survivor of an assault. Wit manages to live out the Artemis and Callisto mythology that Sean had earlier told them about - the little girl defeating the bear by becoming one herself. I do wish the director hadn't felt the need to not only make her a vegan (earlier proclaiming how she's not the hunting type because she couldn't bring herself to kill) but newly pregnant in order to power her along on this survivor's journey. When her and Mike separate we even get that cheesy moment of her exclaiming "I can't do this alone!" and Mike responding "you aren't" as he tenderly places a hand on her belly. Why?? Why do we have to give a woman more reasons to survive than just simply survival itself? Does she really need to be fighting for her unborn child to find unknown strength inside herself?
It DID have some truly scary moments, though - ones that make us really able to feel the isolation, the hopelessness, that someone might feel in a scenario like this. Wit finally reaching Mike on the radio only for him to tell her, "They're going to find you and they're going to kill you unless you kill them first. Kill. Them. All." gave me a chill, especially when she looks out over the hills and sees the masked kids biking towards her. The hunters recording the deaths on their cell phones hit a little close to home. Even Wit's complete 180 - almost calling 911 after she successfully fights off the second kid but apparently deciding she would rather hunt down her final prey instead - is a disturbing reminder of what humans can be capable of. I mean, jesus, she removes the kid's mask so she can look into his face while he dies next to her.
I thought the ending was pretty great, too. Slowly, painfully riding her way into town and sharing that moment with the kid in the shopping cart - them both pulling their imaginary triggers at each other - was good. It was moments like that one and a few other clever bits that make it so Christopher Denham is still on my watch list, because I think he's got some even better projects up his sleeves.
Ultimately, a fun survival flick with promise. Worth a watch!