Although the logline may suggest yet another variation on the “Most Dangerous Game” playbook — hunters become prey during an out-of-season visit to a nature preserve — “Preservation” ultimately impresses as an arrestingly suspenseful thriller that takes clever narrative twists and turns while moving through familiar territory. It’s difficult to give writer-director Christopher Denham full credit for his ingenuity without spoiling at least two genre-tweaking surprises. But respectful reviews and favorable word of mouth could help this small-budget indie not just survive but thrive in various platforms.
Even during the leisurely paced expository scenes, Denham suggests undercurrents of trepidation while constructing his setup and introducing his three main characters: Sean (Pablo Schreiber), a tightly coiled Afghanistan War vet who seems intent on drinking away bad memories; Mike (Aaron Staton), his workaholic businessman brother, who remains inextricably attached to his smartphone even during a weekend getaway; and Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), Mike’s wife, an ER-experienced anesthesiologist who gamely joins her husband and brother-in-law on a hunting trip, despite being a vegan with little enthusiasm for shooting live targets.
Sean’s portentous pronouncements about survival of the fittest — “Man is the only animal who kills because it’s fun!” — do little to bring out the happy huntswoman in Wit. But her brother-in-law’s words inevitably come back to haunt her as the three weekend vacationers realize they are not alone in the nature preserve they thought they had to themselves.
Denham shrewdly tightens the screws with some cheeky but dead-serious visual allusions to other thrillers — a bit of “Blair Witch Project” here, a smidgen of “Friday the 13th” there — before upending expectations with a startling reveal at the two-thirds mark. And that leads a few scenes later to a turnabout that likely would be best appreciated as a member of a cheering theater audience.
Despite a few fleeting clumps of inadvertently comical dialogue — “You killed my dog! Now I kill you!” — Denham’s scenario serves as an efficient blueprint for an attention-grabbing, adrenaline-pumping survival drama artfully seasoned with horror-movie tropes. Performances by the three leads are first-rate across the board, with Schmidt coming off as a standout by dint of the skill with which she rises to the challenges of third-act developments.
Tech values are everything they need to be for “Preservation” to work as well as it does.