Human Traces – movie review

by James Robins / 02 December, 2017
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An intricate story in a rugged setting makes this thriller one of the year’s best local films.

The debut feature of Christchurch writer-director Nic Gorman is a knotty thriller that doubles, then triples over itself. As in Rashomon, it toys with our idea of time and perspective. Every time you think you’ve settled in, the whole thing tips sideways.

Human Traces follows three wildlife workers voluntarily marooned on the fictional subantarctic island of Perseverance, a habitat that resembles an alien planet. They stalk steep cliffs dressed in white coveralls stained red with dust from the poison they’re using to eradicate a plague of rats and rabbits. Here, the wind howls and rain pierces like shrapnel.

They’re a ravaged bunch, their faces contorted into sneers and frowns against the weather. Glenn (Mark Mitchinson) runs the place as if it were his own fiefdom, as if it could ever be controlled. He’s an ecological nihilist, who has no time for children. “Human vermin,” he mutters – a remark that alarms his wife, Sarah (Sophie Henderson), who suspects she may be carrying his child and that their battle against the island’s pests is futile.

As winter looms, a new face, Pete (Vinnie Bennett), arrives. But his inexperience and reserve prompt distrust.

At the edge of the world, a storm gathers. Paranoia, suspicion and megalomania gather with it.

Everything seems to be accelerating, racing past us like a buffeting tempest. Each scene is cut together (by Richard Shaw) with maximum conciseness and acuity. This is because, just as first blood is spilt, we return to the beginning, tracing the viewpoint of a new character. A question or threat posed in the present is answered by an expository dip into the past. Actions rebound and radically alter as each narrative unfurls.

Gorman deserves serious respect for attempting such a complex way of storytelling, and for pulling it off. The conceit doesn’t slip, and nor does the pace.

The unremitting roughness of the environment (filmed around the Catlins) only adds to the film’s ferocity and its sense of deranged isolation.

All the performances are equally impressive. Not overburdened with lines, they keenly evoke desperation, cynicism or betrayal with a lingering and penetrating stare.

Alongside the exquisite Waru, Human Traces is one of the best New Zealand films released this year.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the November 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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