The umpteenth iteration of the urban-vacationers-in-backwoods-hell horror scenario, Preservation follows three relatives—cellphone-addicted Mike (Aaron Staton), his med-student wife, Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), and his unstable ex-military brother, Sean (Pablo Schreiber)—as they go hunting for the weekend and wind up being preyed upon by three masked killers. That those fiends communicate exclusively by texting furthers writer-director Christopher Denham’s censure of modern technological interaction. His real target of criticism, though, remains the rural countryside, which is presented as a literal hunting ground where men stalk both animals and humans. The middle of nowhere provides the ideal setting for Denham’s cynical treatise on people’s capacity for untold brutality, which is established early on through the rapport of the three main characters, whose relationships are strained by business-obsessed Mike’s general disinterest in his wife, Sean’s not-so-subtle romantic attraction to her, and Wit’s discomfort with hunting.
That last issue is crucial to Denham’s concerns, since the material’s prime focus is on the lengths to which those in peril will go to protect themselves. That theme is underlined not only by the film’s title, but also by the name of the closed-for-business park in which the trio go camping—“Preservation”—as well as Sean’s lengthy speech about mankind’s inherent kill-or-be-killed instincts. The fact that Wit doesn’t believe that everyone has murderous self-preservation skills is soon put to the test when, upon failing to gun down a buck that she had in her sights, she wakes the next morning to discover that the group’s gear (weapons included) has been stolen and their foreheads have been marked with an X. Not long after, all three are dodging gunshots and valiantly attempting to find, and confront, the masked fiends who want them dead, leading to a series of cat-and-mouse scenarios that Denham stages without any attention to basic logic.
With Sean and Mike behaving in ways that directly contradict their supposed hunting prowess, and with villains who are unbelievably crafty and invincible one moment, and then so laughably dim-witted that they fall for any simplistic trap set for them the next, Preservation soon turns hopelessly contrived. It’s clear from the outset that Denham’s main goal is to prove his thesis about humanity’s survival-of-the-fittest nature via Wit’s transformation from non-violent everywoman to aggro-vengeful agent of death—a makeover partially motivated by her desire to protect her unborn child. Yet even more aggravating than his clunky characterizations, the worst being Staton’s cartoon caricature of an urban workaholic, are the nonsensical plot twists that he employs to make his sociological case. Chockablock with instances of characters not shooting, running, attacking, or sneaking away when they can or should, this thriller comes off like the world’s most rigged game.