★★ / ★★★★
An independent suspense-thriller with great potential but ultimately limited by a standard and uninspired setup, “Preservation” is watchable given one is in the mood for ignoring logic, physics, and accepting a bit of silliness. As far as camping trips that go horribly awry, at least this story offers small but genuinely surprising twists that contain dramatic force. It is apparent that writer-director Christopher Denham has thought about his screenplay so that the changes that the protagonist goes through come full circle.
Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), her husband (Aaron Stanton), and brother-in-law (Pablo Schreiber) plan to camp at a state park for a weekend getaway. But when they get there, the park is closed—seemingly for years. Mike and Sean’s last visit was when they were boys. Although the park is off-limits according to the posted signs, the trio go in anyway to hike, hunt, and relax. The next morning, however, they wake up and their possessions are gone, each of them having a black mark on their foreheads—as if they are going to be targeted. Mike assumes it is one of Mike’s pranks… but Mike’s beloved dog, too, is nowhere to be found.
The material is held back by an extended exposition that is obviously only present to provide character background through dialogue. Although this approach can work in slow burn but very tightly-written thrillers, it is ineffective here because the characters are not that interesting and that fact becomes increasingly clear the more they speak to one another. They talk about their pasts and lives back in the city, but they are bland, their outlook or perspective about the world and those around them do not grab or compel us. Still, although a bit flat, the exchanges are never stagnant or pointless.
The picture comes to life the moment the campers realize the next morning that most of their personal items are gone. I enjoyed that at first there is utter shock and then almost immediately there is a tinge of humor in it. After all, who doesn’t wake up from the commotion inevitably made by someone walking around, folding, lifting, and carrying away items of various sizes—especially when sleeping in a new place and out in the wilderness? Our brains are programmed to be sensitive to danger in instances such as this. The writer-director ought to have had more opportunities to play with tone, especially during the action scenes where violence must be employed for survival. Some might work and some may not but changes, good or bad, tend to keep viewers engaged.
Somewhat surprising is the style of violence employed. For a survival film set in the wilderness, many of the scenes involving physical confrontations between or amongst characters come across cartoonish. Perhaps this trait can be attributed to the budget or the editing—likely both—but I found it refreshing that it goes against the visceral type of violence that is expected in the genre. There are even a few moments when I considered whether a few critical tweaks might have made the picture into a comedy-thriller. I liked that it is almost at the cusp of two genres.
Many people will not understand the value of a movie like “Preservation.” Who can blame them when suspense-thrillers are expected to be serious, nail-biting, logical, as tightly written as possible? This picture does not embody any of these characteristics. I liked it enough nonetheless because it bothers to deliver something different. The risks it takes do not always work but it least it takes them. Self-serious thrillers of its type tend to be one dimensional in look, tone, and feeling. Not to mention predictable and boring. I’ve always said that I’d rather see a movie that works some of the time exactly because it takes risks rather than a movie that does not work at all exactly because it is too afraid to even consider stepping out of the box.