Making its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival recently, first-time director Nic Gorman sets out to explore how isolationism affects the human condition when an ecological disaster strikes a husband-wife research team in Human Traces.
The remote island of Perseverance is home to the husband-wife scientific research team of Glenn (Mark Mitchinson) and Sarah (Sophie Henderson). The mission is to study the effects of removing an infestation from the island. Their idyllic marriage is upset when the new caretaker of the island, Pete (Vinnie Bennett) arrives. The situation rapidly deteriorates into a fight for their survival.
Writer-director Gorman, whose first short Here Be Monsters won the New Zealand Film and TV Awards Best Short Film in 2014 has created an atmospheric psychological thriller in his first feature. His leads, Sophie Henderson and Mark Mitchinson approached their roles with an empathy and compassion that’s rarely seen today. American audiences will know Mitchinson from his role as Braga in The Hobbit film series as well as a Nobleman in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Henderson has focused on television work, but independent filmgoers might know her performances in Fantail and The Most Fun You Can Have Dying. Bennett co-starred with Henderson in Fantail and had a stand-in role in Ghost in the Shell (2017).
The film was shot entirely on location, allowing DP John Chrisstoffels to capture the natural beauty of the island. Gorman and editor Richard Shaw took advantage of this as they used a non-linear narrative to tell the horrors of isolation experienced on Perseverance.
The very nature of the isolation allows Glenn and Sarah’s chemistry to build towards a vulnerability. Vinnie Bennett’s Riki exploits this to slowly fracture the relationship. The overall setup is hampered, confusing some of the plot elements. Some of the camera setups don’t necessarily work either, seeping some of the emotion out of the actors. This could be a result of the use of a shaky camera and some ill-timed editing choices.
Stephen Gallagher’s score captures the essence of isolation, but might not fully explore all of the themes. His score ranges from being a delicate, soft-spoken piano piece to generically placed tones conveying ominous emotions. The score is extremely strong and escalates the provocative nuance of the film’s framework.
Despite these minor quibbles, Gorman creates a middle ground between a Terrance Malick awakening and a Hitchcockian thriller. I found the film to be a metaphor for not only the changing climate, but our responsibility in destroying our environment through an abuse of ourselves and our resources.
At a run time of 86 minutes, Gorman uses the ‘less is more’ approach. His labor of love is very clearly on the screen. Equally poetic and grim, Nic Gorman might not be a household name yet, but Human Traces is a very thought-driven film that stays close to its details, maintains an essence and creates a very plausible ability to search for answers. For our world, ourselves and the human race.