Here’s a dark horse of a film – or rather, upon closer examination, a Trojan horse. It’s the second film from writer-director Christopher Denham, whom you may recognize from his acting roles in Shutter Island, Argo, TV’s Manhattan and The Sound of My Voice, but who also wrote and directed the underrated found footage horror Home Movie (2008), in which Denham used the contents of a home movie camera to document the breakdown of a normal family, as their twin 10-year-olds become increasingly violent and disconnected. Although Home Movie was perhaps overshadowed by two other ‘bad seed’ films from 2008, Eden Lake and The Children, it had intriguing and relevant things to say about the violence that weaves its insidious way through our childhoods, inherent in everything from fairy tales to children’s toys and Bible stories, and, arguably, about the violence inherent in human nature, and children in particular. They are themes Denham returns to, with resounding success, in Preservation.
Denham front-loads his narrative with a familiar horror movie set-up: a group of people – in this case, young businessman Mike (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton), his pregnant wife Wit (Boardwalk Empire’s Wrenn Schmidt) and brother Sean (Orange is the New Black’s Pablo Schreiber), a veteran of the war in Iraq – set off into the woods (specifically, a nature preserve) on a hunting trip. But after one of the best, yet simplest, opening title sequences of any recent horror film, something unsettling begins to creep in: the overt violence of the hunt itself is reinforced by subtextual elements – an online video in which a cat is flushed down a toilet, a nursery rhyme half-remembered, an episode of animal cruelty in the brothers’ childhood, their father’s fondness for firearms and corporal punishment – in which violence is a recurring theme.
Even before the plot kicks off – as the trio’s tent, provisions, weapons and even shoes are stolen by persons unknown – everything appears steeped in subtext and symbolism: the abandoned, graffiti-covered childrens’ playground and achingly twee ‘Nature Kidz Museum’, Sean’s telling of the Greek hunting goddess Artemis’ origin story, and so on. (Even the trio’s choice of car, a Ford Bronco, recalls a violent episode of America’s recent past.) Sean’s history of violence is obvious, but even Mike uses hunting terminology when referring to his business deals; of the trio, only Wit seems to have resisted the human urge towards violence, both in her choice of lifestyle (vegan) and profession (medicine), and her reluctance to go through with actually shooting a defenceless animal for sport. “Man is the only animal that kills for fun,” Sean reminds us – words that will prove prophetic as the three are hunted down by the mystery assailants who stole their gear.
With all this subtext and symbolism to the fore, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Preservation doesn’t work as a straight-ahead thriller – but you’d be dead wrong. Although it sometimes feels like an American spin on Eden Lake – or perhaps Deliverance with Purge masks – it shouldn’t be dismissed as derivative; the argument made by that film bears repeating, especially in America, where there are more guns than there are people, and violence is a way of life for millions of ordinary people. Home Movie was an impressive example of the much-maligned “found footage” format, but in graduating – that is to say switching – to more traditional narrative form, Denham demonstrates considerable skill behind the camera, and draws equally impressive performances from his modest cast, among whom Schmidt is a standout. It’s a nail-biting, sweat-inducing thriller-cum-horror film which poses questions about children and violence which are arguably more urgent and relevant than anything in Home Movie, or any other recent horror film, and marks Denham out as a major new talent.
David Hughes (@DavidHughesTwit)