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Mike (Aaron Staton) and his wife Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) had planned a quiet camping trip, just the two of them, but his brother Sean (Pablo Schreiber) has had a rough time since returning from Afghanistan so they invite him along. The brothers turn it into a hunting trip and a minor family reunion as they reminisce over events from their childhood, but all is not right and relaxed with the trio. Sean is living off the grid while Mike is handcuffed to it — he’s on his cell phone more than he’s on his wife — and their differences couldn’t be clearer. Wit meanwhile fears she’s drifting away from her husband due to his inattentiveness and hey look Sean sure does seem to be more understanding doesn’t he?
Luckily they wake up the next morning with far more pressing matters. Someone has stolen their belongings and drawn Xs on their foreheads while they slept. Their clothes, supplies, guns and water are all gone. Inexplicably, Sean’s dog is missing too along with all but the floor of the tent that Mike and Wit were sleeping in. All of it taken without any of the three waking up. You saw where I said the tent they were sleeping in is gone too right? Barefoot, thirsty and confused they head into the woods in search of safety.
Preservation shows promise in its opening fifteen minutes — time spent establishing characters and setting up a dynamic — before it becomes ridiculously clear that writer/director Christopher Denham should drop the writing from his resume going forward. Because this is one terribly written movie.
All three leads — each of them recognizable from their TV work — give good (Staton and Schreiber) to almost great (Schmidt) performances, and as already stated their characters begin on fairly solid ground. These are somewhat generic roles, but there’s enough to play with allowing the actors to deliver a degree of depth.
But script problems become apparent even before the trio is victimized. The dialogue is blatantly on the nose, again and again, both as foreshadowing and eventual social commentary. “Man’s the only animal that kills because it’s fun,” says Sean while gutting a deer. “I don’t have it in me,” Wit says later. “I don’t think I could actually kill.” She of course is rebuffed and told that you never really know what you’re capable of when it’s “fight or flight, kill or be killed.”
If you’re thinking that someone is going to kill for fun and that Wit will be forced to fight to survive then you too can be a screenwriter! Apparently.
The downhill slide continues once they’re on the run as they proceed to check every box on the checklist of dumb things horror film characters do. They bicker over dumb things, they split up, they refuse to notice a clearly visible guy standing ten feet away in the sunlit woods. There are five — five! — instances where a character turns their back on someone they think they’ve dealt with sufficiently (usually with a single hit) only to turn around and discover that no, in fact, that is not the case. And then it’s too late.
The absolute best though — and to be clear by “best” I actually mean worst — is that instead of using one of the three guns at their disposal to kill the enemy one of the good guys decides to hang upside down from a tree branch and try to choke their target with jumper cables as they pass underneath.
Okay, I lied. The actual best/worst occurs after they wake up to discover their predicament and head off into the woods in search of the trail and their car. The scene where the three of them discuss the situation and their concern over getting lost… there is a road not twenty feet behind them. I shit you not.
I won’t even get into the stupidity on display with the bear trap, port-a-potty and cliff-climbing scenes. But hey, at least the cell phones work out in the forest.
Preservation is a terrible waste of talent for all involved. The cast does good work, the cinematography is attractive and even the score delivers, but while the direction is (mostly) fine Denham’s script throws it all away through a non-stop assault of horror movie 101 cliches and inanity. And while I won’t spoil the specifics here it also shows its ineptitude through some far from subtle commentary on a particular aspect of today’s culture. You’ll find more suspense staring at an empty jam jar for ninety minutes.
The Upside: Solid setup; cell phones that work in the woods
The Downside: Script quickly devolves into idiocy and on-the-nose dialogue; weak social commentary; poor spatial awareness
On the Side: Christopher Denham is more well-known (and successful) as an actor in such films as Sound of My Voice and Argo.