After imbuing horror tropes with genuine feeling in his award-winning zombie short Here Be Monsters, Kiwi writer-director Nic Gorman brings a grounded human touch to his feature debut. A knotty psychological thriller set on an isolated subantarctic island, Human Traces deftly pairs taut suspense with slippery character study, refusing to let any of its players fall into simplistic archetypes.
The drama takes place 750 kms south of New Zealand, where husband-and-wife scientist team Sarah (Sophie Henderson) and Glenn (Mark Mitchinson) have been posted to monitor the ecosystem of a remote island. When a mysterious stranger named Pete (Vinnie Bennett) arrives, paranoia and deception begin to disrupt the order. Splitting his film into three chapters, each told from a different character’s perspective, Gorman delights in disorienting his audience. Each new act is designed to reassemble the last: no sooner have you sided with one character than you find your allegiance complicated by the next point of view. The tension builds off a trio of stellar performances, with each allowed equal time to thicken; national treasures Henderson and Mitchinson do impressive work, but it’s newcomer Bennett who shines most, lending his mysterious homme fatale a disarming naturalism.
Beyond expertly deploying spilled secrets, climactic confrontations and washed-up corpses for dramatic effect, it’s Gorman’s understanding of the humanity within the genre beats that grounds the film. This gripping examination of human behaviour reminds us that everyone is only the hero of their own story. — JF