New Zealand cinema has a history of connecting its rugged landscape to the emotional state of its characters. Utu, The Piano, and The Lord of the Rings are just the tip of the iceberg (or glacier if you will). Human Traces may take place 750kms south of the country but it continues in this tradition, setting its action on a remote island with pathos to spare.
Surrounded by sheer cliffs and raging seas, scientists work to take the island back to its natural state, removing the traces of humanity referred to in the title. During winter, only three remain. Inevitably tensions emerge, then boil over.
The debut feature from Nic Gorman is essentially a three-hander between Sophie Henderson, Mark Mitchinson, and Vinnie Bennett, providing ample amounts of empathy, gravitas, and pure smoulder, respectively. Each performance is very well drawn, with layers to sift through over the course of the drama.
Initially the pacing feels off. A relationship falls apart before we get to know the people involved; events that seem important are glossed over. Then the narrative loops back to the beginning, some questions are answered, and some new ones get asked.
It’s a bold choice, a fractured narrative that feels a wee bit Nolan-esque, but is employed expertly by Gorman, splintering further as the story progresses then tied up nicely by the end.
Ecological concerns dominate much of the dialogue, and as the island is buffeted by the elements the three characters do start to feel like the last people left on earth. Human Traces takes its time filling in their stories while managing to make us care. As the film proceeds our allegiance switches between the three, concerned for what might be waiting in their future, but also what might be lingering in their past.