Tribeca: The Dark Thrills of Watching a "Boardwalk Empire" Actress Shank Someone with a Beer Bottle

"Boardwalk Empire" star Wrenn Schmidt shines in the Tribeca Film Festival horror selection "Preservation."

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There’s an extremely effective moment in last year’s You’re Next that, both times I saw the film in a crowded theater, received loud applause. It comes somewhat early into director Adam Wingard’s smart, self-aware horror-comedy. The heroine, Erin (Sharni Vinson), first shows the audience just how badass she really is by, instinctively, driving a screwdriver through a masked home-invader’s hand after he punches through a kitchen window.

In most other horror films, said hand would grab Erin’s hair as she shrieks in helpless terror, but Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett didn't want to see yet another terrified victim. Instead, they opted to create the toughest, most convincingly well-prepared “final girl” they could, and they succeeded. The proof comes near You’re Next’s conclusion, when, in a scene that got even bigger cheers in those two screenings, she offs someone by screwing through their skull with a blender.

The blender scene in You’re Next best exemplifies what Wingard and Barrett were going for when they conceived that film. They wanted to make the ultimate crowd-pleasing midnight movie, something audiences could watch with popcorn in one hand and, preferably, an alcoholic beverage in the other and slap enthusiastic high-fives to their nearest aisle neighbor. Hence why rather than killing the intruder with, you know, a boring old knife, Erin uses a blender; Wingard, for his part, revels in the gory carnage longer than other directors perhaps would.

Like, say, Christopher Denham, the filmmaker behind Preservation, the Tribeca Film Festival Midnight section opener. At the film’s world premiere Friday night, I was expecting Denham and his film to go into that same You’re Next direction. Everything about it seemed to indicate as much. Preservation hinges on Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), who, with her husband, Mike (Aaron Staton), and his brother, Sean (Pablo Schreiber), heads into a closed-off forest preservation for some camping, hunting, and, she hopes, campfire s’mores.

She’s also hoping to finally have a real conversation with Mike, a workaholic who seems to love his cell phone more than he does her—he’s also distracted by Sean, an ex-soldier who’s off his medication and flirting with PTSD symptoms. Wit’s trip becomes less stressful and more nightmarish, though, after the three of them wake up to find all of their gear and Sean’s beloved dog, Buck, missing; even stranger, they all have X’s scribbled on their foreheads.

From there, Preservation turns into a kind of cross between Eden Lake and The Strangers, before going full-blown You’re Next (minus that film’s comedic sensibilities) in its grisly third act. The situation evolves into “Wit versus the bad guys,” and Denham has some morbidly twisted fun with the antagonists’ identities and motivations. But Preservation never settles for any obvious, surface-level “stand up and cheer” payoffs. This is no slight against You’re Next, but Denham’s film is all the more disturbing for that. It’s a woman-gets-revenge film in which the vengeance is brutally and, best of all, believably realistic. Instead of a gorehound-satiating blender, Wit sticks to whatever’s at her disposal, like a tire iron, or a shotgun, or the half of a broken beer bottle. The kills she, as well as her targets, execute are primal. Not to mention, unsettling, since, by the time Preservation goes all blood-and-death, Denham has given his three main characters strong personalities and earned empathies. No one’s disposable, even though, in the eyes of their assailants, they all are.

Anyone who’s seen Denham’s previous horror flick, Home Movie (2008), won’t be surprised by any of this. In that film festival darling, Denham—an actor by day, having co-starred in big-deal movies like Shutter Island and Argo—took the familiar genre conceits of found-footage and creepy kids and freaked them into a chilling, unpredictable triumph. He’s clearly an educated horror fan uninterested in pandering to the genre’s traditions or a viewer’s laziest expectations. Preservation continues that subversive approach, establishing a Deliverance-like set-up and then following none of that classic movie’s, nor any of its subsequent copycats’, rules or beats. And his casting choices reflect that.

When You’re Next was all the rage in the genre community last summer, much of its buzz centered around Vinson’s performance and, in turn, the Erin character’s immediate place in the pantheon of “all-time greatest horror movie heroines.” A place, mind you, she completely deserves. But Vinson’s background as a physically fit dancer/athlete and Erin’s “I grew up in a survivalist camp” backstory make the character’s sudden transition into ‘warrior chick’ status an inevitability.

Wrenn Schmidt, on the other hand, doesn’t have a basis like that. Her ferocity in Preservation comes out of nowhere and slaps you sideways.

Mirroring her Wit character’s non-threatening origins, Schmidt herself hasn’t done anything remotely close to shanking someone in the throat with a cracked beer bottle. Her most recognizable role thus far is that of Julia Sagorsky, on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Fans of actor Jack Huston’s late, great Richard Harrow (R.I.P., old friend) know Julia as the disfigured war veteran’s saving grace, the kind-hearted and soft-spoken woman who gave Richard the love and sense of family he’d been longing for. Richard was sprung on Julia because, in her, he could get away from all the murder and corruption surrounding him in Atlantic City. Because, even in Boardwalk Empire’s Prohibition-era illicitness, where illegal booze bottles are seen everywhere, Julia would never pierce someone’s neck with a shattered hooch container.

Unexpectedly vicious, Schmidt is Preservation’s biggest surprise. As Wit, she’s tasked with evolving from a softie who’s unable to shoot a deer for sport into a mud-and-blood-soaked destroyer, and she nails it. Denham must have known he had a potential new “horror movie heroine” champion on-board, too—Preservation ends with a final shot of Schmidt that, if Preservation were to become a cult thing, would look gnarly on one of those custom movie T-shirts you see dudes wearing at horror conventions.

Being that it’s the last image you see, Schmidt’s final look prompted energetic applause at Friday’s premiere—no blenders necessary.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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