Human Traces – movie review

by James Robins / 02 December, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Human Traces

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.

Latest

Should we bring our fallen soldiers home?
90004 2018-04-25 00:00:00Z Television

Should we bring our fallen soldiers home?

by Fiona Rae

One of our most successful writers visited six countries to speak to the families of those buried in Commonwealth war graves.

Read more
This may be the most beautiful natural history documentary ever
90022 2018-04-25 00:00:00Z Television

This may be the most beautiful natural history doc…

by Fiona Rae

Will Smith and Darren Aronofsky come together to create a jaw-dropping documentary about Planet Earth.

Read more
Lest they forget: Anzac books for children and young readers
90033 2018-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Lest they forget: Anzac books for children and you…

by Ann Packer

In time for Anzac Day, books for younger readers make war stories easy to digest.

Read more
Scout cafe owner Roger Liu opens Woolfy’s, a new place to eat in east Auckland
90050 2018-04-24 14:22:44Z Auckland Eats

Scout cafe owner Roger Liu opens Woolfy’s, a new p…

by Kate Richards

East Auckland gets a new cafe, Woolfy's, from the brains behind Scout in Torbay.

Read more
How to find your family's Anzac history online
90042 2018-04-24 13:16:14Z History

How to find your family's Anzac history online

by Peter Griffin

As Anzac Day looms there’s an opportunity to delve into millions of World War I documents, which are available for a limited time.

Read more
Grey District's retiring mayor Tony Kokshoorn, the accidental author
90027 2018-04-24 11:31:52Z Profiles

Grey District's retiring mayor Tony Kokshoorn, the…

by Clare de Lore

Grey District's long-serving mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, is retiring from politics next year. We look back at a 2016 profile from the Listener archives.

Read more
The Australian Government has gone to war with itself
89860 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z World

The Australian Government has gone to war with its…

by Bernard Lagan

Sydney swelters and the ruling Liberal Party is bitterly divided between progressives and pro-coal conservatives.

Read more
Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its war dead home
89883 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z Profiles

Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its w…

by Clare de Lore

Witi Ihimaera's journey to Commonwealth war graves for a new documentary, In Foreign Fields, is both personal and political.

Read more