Review: Z for Zachariah
PLOT: After some horrific event has claimed most of civilization, three people find themselves living together on a bucolic farm, the last people on Earth. But will simmering tensions destroy this makeshift family?
REVIEW: This has been the summer of two distinctly different visions of the post-apocalypse. Toward the front of the season was MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, a supercharged action epic that saw the end of the world as a dusty battleground streaked in blood and gasoline. Now, as the summer winds down, we have Z FOR ZACHARIAH, a contemplative and emotionally complex drama set on an oasis in an otherwise radioactive world. Both films take a good hard look at what it takes to survive when you're one of the last people alive, but in strikingly different ways. They're also two of the best movies of the year, so far. Perhaps it's the rise of Donald Trump's popularity that is making the apocalypse seem downright enjoyable right about now.
After a largely undiscussed catastrophic event has wiped out almost the entirety of the human race (we gather it was a nuclear holocaust but it's never made expressly clear), a lone woman named Ann (Margot Robbie) tends to her strangely unscathed farm, which acts as a safe haven for her and her dog. Ann has to put on a Hazmat suit whenever she leaves for supplies, but otherwise she's secure in this rural paradise, content to continue what her father started many years ago. One day, she and her canine companion stumble upon a man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has decided to take a bath in a nearby waterfall. Unfortunately for him, that water is radioactive, and he quickly grows sick and dependent on help.
After taking him in and nursing him back to health, Ann learns the man is named John, a scientist who was underground when the cataclysm occurred; John couldn't stand to live beneath the surface for the rest of his life, so he one day made the fateful decision to venture out. Ann and John initially circle each other warily (neither has seen another human being in a long time), with their fundamental differences a potential sticking point: Ann is a devout Christian, a salt-of-the-Earth farm girl, while John is a cynical man of science, his atheism worn right there on his sleeve. But the two recognize they need each other, and eventually learn to - if not quite care about one another - grow comfortable together, with John proving a help in the field while utilizing some scientific know-how to better their situation. Fundamental differences or not, it looks as though these two are in charge of carrying the torch for the human race.
These early passages are deliberately paced and almost Terrence Malick-like: picturesque scenery and unhurried dialogue strike tones of melancholy and expectation. With Ann and John, we see two people who are socially clumsy (for good reason) but also desperate for interaction, and watching them forge an uneasy relationship is remarkably touching. It's worth nothing that both characters are played exceptionally by Robbie and Ejiofor.
Naturally, a wrench in thrown into their "happy" little pseudo-marriage: Another stranger comes calling, this one named Caleb (Chris Pine), a miner who also happened to be underground when disaster struck. Caleb, like Ann, is a midwestern hayseed-type, a strapping young man with piercing blue eyes and a mischievous smile. John is, at first, quietly threatened by Caleb's arrival - and then not so quietly. He sees that these two share much more in common than he and Ann, but Caleb's presence also signals an extra body to do some work and bring a bit of normalcy back to their lives, particularly when it comes to a complicated project involving using that radioactive waterfall to power a generator. But even at the end of the world, primal human emotion can't be held at bay.
Directed with restraint by Craig Zobel (COMPLIANCE), Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a movie of telling glances and pregnant pauses. It'll be a snooze for those looking for a standard post-apocalyptic thriller, but accepting it as a drama with rich performances and three-dimensional characters, it's elegantly wrought. And don't think ZACHARIAH is wanting in the suspense department; in fact, the entire film (especially in its third act) hums with an imperceptible tension, as these characters slowly figure out if they can trust one another (and, really, spend the rest of their lives together). What's especially enthralling about the film is how it tackles major themes - religion vs. science, practicality vs. faith - in such simple terms; there are no elaborate speeches or arguments, it's all laid out in the most economical ways possible. (To the film's credit, it doesn't necessarily take a stand one way or another on its hot topic.) Even the characters' backgrounds, while delved into a bit, are left largely mysterious, so we can surmise for ourselves who these people are and what they've been through. Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a joy for film fans who don't need every damn thing spelled out for them. Even the ending has a delicious ambiguity to it that'll enrage some but delight others (myself for example).
It might not be quite as compelling if it weren't for this splendid cast. Robbie, in a very short amount of time, has established herself as a superb actress. Not just a great beauty (which even the film, drabbing her down, can't hide), but a remarkably convincing performer. Ann is a character easy to fall in love with, and she's the heart of the film, even if you - like John - don't see eye to eye with her. Ejiofer is just as good; his John is a brooding but somewhat exposed individual battling inner demons. The film bravely makes John something of a jerk in passages, and Ejoifer is a skilled thespian more than up to the task of playing up John's various faults, as well as his virtues. Finally, Pine's inherently likable persona is tinged with a hint of menace; his Caleb both charming and slightly creepy. Whether or not Caleb is a good man - or a sneak who sees an opportunity to better his own situation - is a big question for his new companions as well as the audience, and Pine's performance shrewdly never gives too much away. When the three of these actors are on screen together, your eyes don't know who to focus on, they're all that good.
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