Isolation is anything but splendid in “Human Traces,” a slow burn Kiwi psychological thriller about married scientists whose lives are upended when a handsome newcomer arrives at their sub-Antarctic research station. From a slightly stuttering start, the film recovers nicely with “Rashomon”-style flashbacks that craftily manipulate audience assumptions, expectations and sympathies. First-time feature writer-director Nic Gorman has delivered a suspenseful, engrossing and very well performed mood piece that marks him as a talent worth watching. “Traces” ought to enjoy a strong festival run followed by wide online distribution. Domestic theatrical release is set for Nov. 16.
From the very first images of fictional Perseverance Island (actually a combination of locations on the far south coast of New Zealand) it’s easy to believe that its howling winds, heaving seas and driving rain would be enough to test the mental fortitude of just about anyone willing to spend time there.
The film’s strong sense of place is critical in keeping viewers engaged during an opening half-hour that presents major turning points from almost the entire story and is designed to make much more sense when events are replayed from different perspectives. While Gorman’s screenplay ultimately succeeds in this purpose, the going’s choppy at first and audiences will need to take a fair amount of plot and character detail on trust.
What is clear from the kickoff is that Glenn (Mark Mitchinson), a gruff, fifty-ish environmental scientist with an oversized ego and a general dislike for the human race, is very much the boss of the remote outpost. His antipathy for the idea of having children — “human vermin,” he calls them — weighs on the mind of Sarah (Sophie Henderson), his much younger wife and, formerly, his student.
Despite failing so far in their mission to restore the island’s badly damaged ecosystem, Glenn and Sarah appear happy enough, even engaging in some kinky sex play. Things change dramatically when bubbly co-worker Tanya (Sara Wiseman) finishes her stint and is replaced by Pete (Vinnie Bennett), a handsome young guy whose tentative manner suggests he may be an impostor. In a rapid series of events that are sometimes confusing but never less than intriguing, Pete puts a move on Sarah before bonding and then falling out badly with Glenn.
Just as these incidents snowball toward potentially fatal outcomes for all three characters, the screenplay winds back to the beginning. Events are replayed through the eyes of Glenn and then Pete, with the latter’s backstory on a fishing boat filling in key elements of the mystery. Clever editing and smart scripting combine neatly to reveal heretofore concealed information that ramps up the tension and propels the drama to an exciting conclusion.
A chamber piece played out in wide-open and brutally inhospitable spaces, “Human Traces” evolves into a gripping study in isolation, desperation and paranoia that might have soared even higher with a little more meaningful dialogue. While the film introduces many rich themes, such as the effect of human intervention in delicate ecosystems, laws of attraction and what precisely constitutes “civilization,” these are sometimes considered only briefly. Longer conversations on these topics might have drawn viewers even more deeply into the troubled and vulnerable minds of the trio.
Still, in its main mission of generating mystery, intrigue and suspense, the film delivers in pretty good style.
Bennett justifies his rising-star status at this year’s Toronto fest with a smouldering performance as the enigmatic and potentially dangerous interloper. Mitchinson nails it as the self-centered academic, and Henderson gives a finely judged turn as an idealist whose paradise threatens to become her prison.
John Chrisstoffels’ stark imagery of crashing waves and windswept terrain turns the island into a threatening fourth character. Eerie soundscapes by composer Stephen Gallagher contribute effectively to the mood of mounting menace. All other technical contributions are top-shelf.