by Matt Boyd Smith
Take hints of The Most Dangerous Game, Deliverance and A Perfect Getaway, remove all of the plausible characterization and logic of their actions and what do you have? Probably something close to Preservation, a competently made and acted thriller with some really poor scripting. It’s a shame really; I was hoping for a great thriller and what I got was a poorly-paced mess that wears all of its ideas right on the surface.
The film begins with Sean, Mike, and Wit Neary (Aaron Staton, Pablo Schreiber, and Wrenn Schmidt) going on a hunting trip in a close nature preserve. Sean, discharged from military service, leads Mike and his wife Wit into the woods without using the park’s many designated pathways, and it’s not long before they’re in the middle of nowhere with only a string of trees tagged with dots of spray paint to guide them home again. Their first day out Sean kills a deer and begins dressing it as they set up camp for the night. Mike, always conducting business on his phone, seems distant from Wit, and the film gets right to the fact that Sean has been attracted to her for some time. This attraction is of course used to set up the events which soon follow.
After waking up from a long night of drinking by the campfire, the group discovers that all of their gear, including clothing, rifles, and water, is missing. They also have Xs drawn on their foreheads. Mike immediately blames his brother’s PTSD, even though Sean says that he saw three people walking away from the camp as he was coming to, all their stuff in tow. They decide to head back to their car, but Sean wants to find his dog, so Mike and Wit head on to where the car might be parked if they can follow the spray painted dots back while he doubles back for his pet. Thus begins some of the laziest scripting I’ve seen in a film of this kind.
These characters do not act like real people with functioning brains. And, in the instances they do seem to think through their situation (basically the entirety of the film’s last fifteen minutes when Wit begins to pick off her assailants one-by-one), the character transformations and motivations don’t make any sense. We know Wit is a doctor (an anesthesiologist), but where’d she pick up field dressings for the gashes Mike gets on his feet, or for her own head after a hard fall down a hill onto a rock? And why after killing the first of three pursuers doesn’t she just take his bike (yes, his bicycle) and leave the campgrounds? Why risk going back to kill the others and risk nearly dying—which happens, really—both times you try to take them out? And why, if you have a gun, do you bother setting an elaborate trap for the last guy which involves you hanging upside down from a tree limb and attempting to strangle him with jumper cables from your jeep? Just shoot him and be done with it. Yes, the strangulation thing looks cooler on film, but at no point is Wit set up to be an actual badass (this is not a You’re Next level plot revelation), and there’s no reason for her to move with stealth: this is the last guy. Kill him, be done, move on. Give Wrenn Schmidt a good movie to be in and she’ll be big. She’s good. She needs good material.
The revelation that the responsible parties are all high school-aged BMX bros who play first-person shooter games on their cell phones and don’t actually say words to one another even when they’re the only people on screen (they text one another, constantly and stupidly) is just another poorly executed concept with no bearing on anything resembling human behavior. I’m also not sure what this revelation adds. It detracts from any sort of suspense that has been built up before the reveal, and it doesn’t function as a commentary on why the bros are killing campers on this nature preserve other than “they like playing violent video games” which also doesn’t make sense. In other words, why reveal who they are at all before Wit has to deal with them? The audience sees them as assholes who don’t care about what they’re doing before she knows who they are, so her hesitation at discovering they’re basically just kids doesn’t carry the emotional weight the film seems to be aiming for. It’s a bad storytelling decision in a film riddled with them.
So, what starts out as an okay thriller is derailed by poor motivation, poor writing, and almost no believable character work. It’s a competent attempt at a thriller, but it ultimately fails, and in so doing it wastes the time and energy of everyone involved in its production who aren’t writer-director Christopher Denham. It’s not that Denham is a poor director – everything is staged just fine, the film looks good, and the actors work. The script is full of logic holes. It’s just a damn shame. Preservation just isn’t worth your time.
1.5 out of 5 stars