Saturday, April 18, 2015

Movies: Off the preservation.

The film opens with credit our first protags – big brother Sean, little brother Mike, and Mrs. Little Brother, (punningly and aspirationally named) Wit Neary – driving down winding country roads. We know from a montage of the their supplies that they plan mostly to hunt with Chekhov’s guns: there’s a quick progression of shots, covering everything from rifles to road flares to hunting dog, that was probably described in the script as “montage shows all the stuff we use to fight the baddie later.” This also reveals, and I’m not sure if this is due to the filmmakers’ unfamiliarity with firearms or if we’re meant to actually understand this about the characters, that they are woefully incompetent. Their rifles, though nice, are not kept in cases. Their road flares are just stacked in the back. They also drink while they drive. Ultimately, it’s a damn good thing that plot demanded that they get somewhere were a masked psychos were waiting to kill them or, honestly, these two gentlemen might have just bought it due to misadventure.

They make a short stop at a gas station. I mention this here simply because it is notable among gas stations in horror flicks for being at once remote and staffed by local yokels and, yet, does not resemble either a country general store from some sort of splatter-cinema version of 1845 or seemingly a fanatically deliberate effort cultivate every sort of filth, spore, mold, and fungus. Along with just a few other gas stations – the gas-and-shop at the front of Dusk ‘Till Dawn; the clean, but questionably lit with green and yellow colored lights petrol station from High Tension - I’m going to go ahead and give this one, despite some weird shot featuring a trapped animal hanging from a plastic bag on the roof, the ANTSS Award for Horror Flick Gas Station I at Which Would Actually Ask for the Bathroom Key. Ghouls and Gals: look for the ANTSS Travel Advisory Seal of Approval – if it isn’t ANTSS okay, stay away!

The final destination of our trio is a shut down national park. There they trek into the forest with a weird combination of bro-ish hunter zen – “The real hunter doesn’t give chase; the real hunter is already there” – and casual disregard for the environment. They tromp deeper into the woods, taking turns pontificating about the sort of bushido-focus one needs to conquer the wilderness and committing casual acts of pollution.

The next sequence drags a bit. Sean becomes increasingly rugged in direct proportion to how often he appears in a tank top. Mike takes every opportunity to wallow in his city-weak ready-to-be-Darwinistically-selected-against-ness. Wit struggles between a clear attraction to the manly man biceps of Sean and the fact that she’s actually walking stereotype of urbanized elitist softness (she proclaims she’s a vegan, making her willingness to be an active participant in a deer hunt somewhat curious). There’s a whole why-no-babies subplot between Wit and Mike. Sean is revealed to be a drunken soldier who got discharged under vaguely sinister circumstances. It’s like a poor man’s Pinter wrote cinematic cut-scenes for Buck Hunter. Weirdly, in this section, Sean retells the story of Artemis and Callisto, but completely just makes up some bullshit out of his ass. The story he tells has no significant relation to actual myth, even to the point of changing Callisto from woman into a man. It’s another moment when it is unclear if the filmmakers just didn’t give a crap or we’re supposed to take this as a sign of Sean’s mental imbalance and the fact that he’s untrustworthy.

There’s a too drunk, too late fireside conversation. Sean drinks Wild Turkey. There’s some flirting. A chocolate fountain is discussed. Awkward return of husband. Wit and Mike retire to their tent to sleep. Then . . .

Let’s take an aside here. Wild Turkey is like coffee temperatures: it’s an excluded middle sort of thing. The same way you want you coffee hot as fuck or ice cold, but everything in the middle sucks; you want Wild Turkey not at all, or enough of it to ensure you are physically incapable of doing something stupid. A reasonable amount of Wild Turkey is a crap idea.

Okay, back to the movie. Then . . . Wit and Mike wake up with their sleeping bags on the ground. Everything from the campsite is gone. I mean everything. Their tent was cut out from around them. Their shoes are gone. The guns. The dog. The big brother. Everything. They also have X’s drawn on their heads. Mike immediately blames Sean for going PTSD on them. Sean claims he detects three distinct footprints from the crew that stole their stuff, but Mike thinks Sean’s just lost marbles. The scene is somewhat undercut by the fact that you can see a fairly substantial road in the background of the shot. They march back to the car. There’s the inevitable “do you want to fuck my brother” scene, Sean breaks off from the group because he won’t leave his red herring – I mean dog – behind, and it’s reveled that Wit is preggers. Then, finally . . . FINALLY . . . the baddies makes their move.

The masked killers in this flick are a cross between the nameless manhunter in Trigger Man and the masked thrill-killers in The Strangers.  Interestingly, one of the killers has the logo of Men Going Their Own Way, a bizarre Men’s Rights (I guess that’s a thing now) group that espouses rejecting society’s imposed norms on manhood, but has a site filled with jet fighters, lonely travelers down dusty roads, and pretty much every other well accepted cliché of manhood imaginable. The idea that these are wacked out Gamergaters or something is novel.

The rest of the movie starts to quickly coalesce around the elimination of the male protags and Wit finding her way out of her vegan, lady-ish, weak uselessness and becoming a fighter. On one hand, Wit turns out to be a pleasingly effective hero. She’s brave, handy with first aid, and, when the time comes, effective enough when it comes to doling out the violence. Still, there’s something unsettling about her transformation. The film makes it baddies some weird MRA-types playing at some sort of LARPy “Most Dangerous Game”, so that suggests disapproval of the “movement’s” paleo attitudes to gender essentialism, but the film also has a running thread of contempt for Mike and Wit’s supposedly laughable city folk liberal lifestyles. Ultimately, it can only place Wit in the driver’s seat when it has stripped her of her values and identity and turned her into another avatar of its basic “kill or be killed” ethos; an ethos, one imagines, the masked killers use to justify their own grotesque behavior. I don’t know what to make of this. Or even if anything should be made of it. But it’s there and, I think, worth noting.

Despite my snark, there’s a lot this flick does right. The masked killer chasing stupid teens in the woods thing is pretty freakin’ tired. It’s nice to see our victim pool made up of adults who – some sibling and bedswerving squabbles aside – immediately latch into survival mode. The results don’t really differ, but the stakes feel higher. Also, the film is actually quite lovely. There’s also some effective use of contemporary elements that, as a general rule, your standard crazy-killer-in-the-woods flick avoids. To keep things simple, most of these flicks plunge the protagonists into pretty Year Zero situations: no phones, no cars, weapons that would be at home in the 15th century. This uses firearms and cellphones and the like really well. This includes a charming scene in which one of the killers must chat with his mom, who has called his cell at an inopportune time. Perhaps it is simply the cheaper cost of high quality cameras and such, but Preservation makes the most out of the beauty of its wilderness surroundings. And I’m inclined to not to simply chalk it up to the low price point of premium filmmaking tech given that this technical prowess is wed to an aesthetic that takes it time and allows characters to pause, react, and be still. This approach is so rare in this particular subgenre that it, unintentionally, causes the viewer anxiety: sometimes you’re simply watching a character do some bit of emotional work, but you’re assuming, from the rules of slashers (and, presence of guns aside, this is basically a slasher) that any sort of slow down is necessarily a set-up for a jump scare.

Preservation won’t blow you away, but it isn’t some strictly by-the-numbers phoned in effort. That’s commendable. If you’ve got room for such modest pleasures in your film-watching schedule, you could do far worse.

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