Russ McCoy is a park ranger who is passionately dedicated to his job. He loves the peace and serenity of nature; he is deeply familiar with all the creatures he encounters on his regular rounds, including a bear who has eaten a human.
But before he can do anything about the human-eating bear, Russ is unceremoniously fired from his job, due to the lack of funding for the national parks and the apathy and cluelessness of the park visitors. Distraught and devastated, Russ takes his ire out on a city-slicker couple, Emma and Paul, who are visiting the park for some hiking and camping, and represents all that has gone wrong with society.
Directed by Joel Marsh from a script written by Mike Leavitt, this acerbic dark comedy short is ostensibly one man's revenge upon a world that refuses to respect the only thing he is passionate about. Russ is dedicated to his job, fueled by a deep love of nature and all its wild creatures, and the storytelling finds a witty, even sweet humor on just how immersed he is in his work.
But that fervor has a dark side when it's thwarted by forces out of Russ's control. Money is an issue, but it's also people's growing carelessness about the environment -- where they think of nature only for its Instagram potential, not as something to care for and nurture. The film has some fun with the casually oblivious cluelessness of the couple and charts Russ's growing descent into madness, but it never quite edges into the bite of satire. Instead, the writing and direction manage a fine tonal balance between a creeping sense of horror as Russ loses it, a sincere social commentary on nature and knowing humor at the foibles of humans, with their idiosyncrasies and self-absorption. The film's visuals, too, capture the bucolic beauty of nature, which makes for a striking contrast to the nutty humans roaming within it.
As excellent as the writing and creative direction is, it's the performances that truly make the film's balance of theme and tone work. Actors Claire Glassford and Brendan Sargent play the couple whose cluelessness emerges not from any personal malevolence or lack of intelligence, but from their distraction. But the foundation of the film is actor Galen Howard, who plays Russ with terrific distinction and presence. Russ is an eccentric and outsider, and while Howard revels in Russ's quirky flourishes and the peculiarities of his demeanor, he always maintains a line to Russ's emotional truth. Russ genuinely loves nature for its beauty and majesty, but also because he can be himself in it, away from the judgments of people like Paul and Emma. When that refuge is taken from him, Russ goes into his own heart of darkness, even as Paul and Emma begin to expand their appreciation of nature.
Those dueling arcs in "What Wilderness Permits" converge in ways both unpredictable and sincere as the film proceeds, and gives it an unusual and well-earned emotional resonance, as both the couple and Russ find common ground and compassion. But, because it's also a witty dark comedy, there's also a hilarious irony at its conclusion, where the power of nature truly asserts itself. Nature, it seems, will be just fine, no matter the nature of the humans trampling and traipsing within it.