Preservation (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks


“When we were kids, we used to play war in the woods. We’d run around with our little plastic guns. We’d get one point each for every kid that we killed, and I killed every kid in the neighbourhood. They’d all fall down and play dead. The forest floor would be covered in bodies – till dinner time, when they all got up and went home, game over.”

Asked by his sister-in-law Wit (Wrenn Schmidt) why he was discharged from the army while serving in the Middle East, Sean (Pablo Schreiber) responds with this oblique (and implicitly bleak) parable about his boyhood years, and the rather different, brutal man that he has since become. In Preservation, everything seems to go back to childhood. Sean and his younger brother Mike (Aaron Stefan) are attempting to rebuild their relationship on the old hunting grounds where they once spent time as kids – and amidst all the forest and cliffs and lakes, there is a (heavily graffitied) playground and even a “Nature’s Kidz Museum”. Meanwhile Mike’s wife Wit, smart and competitive but very much out of her element (“I’m not exactly the hunting type – I don’t have it in me – I don’t think I could actually kill”), is carrying in her belly a child of her own, uncertain whether she and Mike are yet ready to bring new life into a sometimes hostile world.

The title of Christopher Denham’s film comes with a double meaning: for not only are its events set in a wildlife preservation, with civilised spaces a long car trip – or bike ride – away, but as this dysfunctional hunting party finds itself being preyed upon by hockey-masked predators out to nab themselves The Most Dangerous Game, the film quickly shifts into survival mode, with Wit forced to summon up her own instincts of self-preservation fast, lest she – and her unborn child – end up merely someone else’s high score.

“The animal kingdom is not always a nice place. Out there in the world, it’s survival of the fittest,” declares the cheery recording at the children’s museum, decorated with both stuffed animals and prominently placed US flags. For Preservation is preoccupied with the Darwinian nature of the human animal, adapted to (and from) a culture that normalises the play of aggression, dominance and aloof amorality – and even as it remixes elements from Friday the 13th (1980), First Blood (1982), The Strangers (2008), Eden Lake (2008) and especially King of the Hill (2007), Denham’s film has the anxieties of post-9/11 America firmly in it sights, asking what kind of example the nation’s recent history of violent adventurism abroad has set for the next generation of boys with toys.

“We must accept mother nature,” continues the museum’s recorded commentary, in words that resonate deeply with Wit’s particular situation. For in finding hidden reserves of bestial ferocity, she becomes both an efficient killer, a monster – and a mother – returning to a civilisation that no longer seems quite so civilised after all. Game over.

Anton Bitel