Economical genre filmmaking is generally a safe bet for independent filmmakers if done right. In A Savage Nature, director Paul Awad comfortably takes refuge in the home invasion subgenre, executing the tense moments we’ve come to expect with aplomb. Along the way, he also subverts expectations with a jarring narrative twist that colors what we’ve seen previously in an entirely new light. Additionally, a welcome surprise is that some performances are noteworthy enough to shine in a genre that isn’t typically a vehicle for such.
We first glimpse server Beth Walker (Joanna Whicker) in a low-key diner somewhere in rural Virginia, discussing the atrophy of her marriage with coworker Ally (Rayanne Gonzales). She’s married to Pete (Steve Polites), a troubled veteran who now works as a local police officer. Ostensibly because of PTSD-related trauma, he has had difficulties reconnecting with Beth upon returning from service. During that same shift in the diner, Beth is harassed by two lowlifes, later identified as J. B. (Joseph Carlson) and Doug (Jon Hudson Odom). Promptly rescued by Sheriff Walt (Frank Riley III), who just happened to be eating there, Beth thinks nothing of it after they’re booted from the diner. Any viewer with a pulse will realize that we will see these scumbags again.
This scant setup allows the thrills to kick in at the right time, and as A Savage Nature progresses, we begin to appreciate the performance of Whicker. Awad paints the character with more agency than your standard scream queen, subverting the classic structure of this type of film. Without getting into spoiler territory, one can safely say that her arc goes from subservient housewife to something else entirely. This permanently alters the film’s trajectory, for better or for worse. No matter how one views the transition, the actor goes for broke and nails every line. The work of Carlson as the dopey goon is also worthy of praise as he shows off his natural instincts as a character actor.
“…Beth thinks nothing of it after they’re booted from the diner.”
There are, unfortunately, moments when the screenplay, by Awad and Kathryn O’Sullivan, is an affront to these otherwise great performances. One particularly cringe-worthy dialogue sequence occurs when a major character all-too eloquently expounds upon the inherent natures of coyotes and rabbits in a feeble attempt at delineating motivations. Exchanges like this feel out of place in the film’s overall scheme and only slows the otherwise brisk pacing in service to a profundity that isn’t necessary. In fairness, though, no sane viewer will go into a thriller expecting introspective dialogue in the vein of Phillip Roth.
A Savage Nature takes a turn that will alienate some because it reorients the tension that the filmmaker had previously been building. It’s clear that it’s an effort to separate the film from the pack. Still, one must question if it was entirely necessary, especially when Awad previously seemed so comfortable in the genre. The jarring nature of the reveal does make one feel somewhat cheated, but we must recognize the effort of a filmmaker trying to smash through the narrative limitations of the subgenre, even it does come out of left field.
Considering all this, A Savage Nature accomplishes its mission as a taut and riveting home invasion thriller. This is true, even if one gets the sense that it’s trying a little too hard.
"…accomplishes its mission as a taut and riveting home invasion thriller."