Z FOR ZACHARIAH
2015, R, 96 mins.
2015, R, 96 mins.
Margot Robbie as Ann Burden / Chris Pine as Caleb / Chiwetel Ejiofor as Loomis
Directed by Craig Zobel / Written by Nissar Modi, based on the novel by Robert C. O'Brien
FOR ZACHARIAH is an atypically intimate and meditative post-apocalyptic
drama. This new film from
director Craig Zobel (whom previously helmed the masterfully unnerving COMPLIANCE)
doesnít slavishly utilize stale and overwrought genre troupes.
Instead, Z FOR ZACHARIAH is more compellingly about the
oftentimes-tumultuous nature of human relationships set against the
backdrop of a nightmarish environment.
In a relative age when summer films Ė especially ones that dabble
in post-war/post-apocalyptic settings Ė seem to exist for their visual
effects and action, itís refreshing to see Zobelís sparse, economical,
and powerfully authentic film hone in on character dynamics over ostentatious
spectacle. Z FOR ZACHARIAH is a quiet and leisurely film, but its
less-is-more/slow-burn approach pays huge dividends throughout.
does a brilliant job of establishing the morbid particulars of his
futuristic world without wastefully spending time of unnecessary
exposition. Z FOR ZACHARIAH
is set in an unspecified time in the not-to-distant future as the world is
trying to pick up the pieces after what is assumed (never specified) to be
nuclear-armed conflict. Pockets
of radiation make many areas that were not hit the worst still
inhospitable, leaving whatís left of humanity struggling to find a safe
haven in order to not die in fallout-ravaged areas.
One specific area appears to have been spared from the warís
devastating impact; for the most part, itís filled with lush and green
hillsides and mountain valleys and seems like the last sustainable place
for any human to eek out an existence.
One such woman, Ann (Margot Robbie), is a daughter of a local
preacher whose been surviving all on her own for what seems like an
eternity. She subsides on
supplies that she scavengers from nearby towns (often having to don a radiation
suit to enter them) and small animals that she hunts on a daily
basis. Itís not altogether
much, but the headstrong Ann makes as much as she can with her meager
resources. Beyond battling
hunger, she frequently is plagued by the long-term effects of loneliness
one fateful day Ė while on a routine hunting expedition Ė Ann comes
across another human, an ex-civil contractor named Loomis (Chiwetel
Ejiofor), that she finds taking a bath in a nearby waterfall and pool
(which he doesnít realize is still polluted with radiation). Taking pity on what may be the only other man on the planet,
Ann quickly pleads with Loomis to exit the tainted water as quickly as
possible, after which time she takes him back home so she can help him
through his newfound radiation sickness.
Of course, Ann's instincts to protect another person kicks in, but
her suspicions of her new guest always stay in the forefront.
However, as time passes and the two spend more time together the closer they become as friends and confidants.
Just when it seems like their relationship may cross over into a
romantic one, Loomis and Ann are surprised by the appearance of Caleb
(Chris Pine), another wanderer thatís seeking refuge from the hostile
external elements. Ann
steadfastly believes that taking in another wounded soul seems worthwhile,
but Loomis remains more guarded and apprehensive.
Unfortunately, when Caleb begins to show more than a platonic
interest in Ann, Loomisí initial trepidation turns to jealous mistrust.
on the aforementioned plot description, Z FOR ZACHARIAH seems like a
formulaic melodramatic story involving an obligatory love triangle.
Nothing could really be further from the truth.
Zobelís film never really goes down any real predictable paths
for these three characters, per se, as it certainly leads us to think that
itís heading in one direction, only later pulling an about-face and
taking viewers someplace more dramatically intriguing.
The characters are also so shrewdly and sharply drawn that youíre
almost forgetting at times that youíre watching a post-apocalyptic film.
Ann and Loomis seem like a good match, seeing as they both have
their respective stories of personal loss and tragedy.
There are certainly emotional obstacles that rear their heads and
cause conflict between the relative domestic bliss that Ann and Loomis
have cultivated. One dicey
area of disagreement between them occurs when Loomis Ė a practical man
of science Ė wants to use the wood from Annís fatherís church to
build a water wheel for energy creation purposes.
The deeply religious Ann believes that the church should stay, for
obvious spiritual and sentimental purposes.
Not only is their overt sexual tension between these two poor
souls, but ideological ones as well as to the right path to ensure their
course, their relatively cozy, but tense relationship is thrown for a loop
with Caleb, whom is a much younger man that Loomis feels is a threat to
any prolonged happiness that he and Ann can have as a potential couple
going forward. Equally
exasperating to Loomis is that Ann seems to develop chemistry with the
younger and handsomer man relatively quickly.
Thankfully, though, Caleb is never written, nor portrayed as a
one-note and duplicitous minded antagonist in the film.
The three characters, in one form or another, are all deeply flawed
and harbor inward pains and anxieties that they often have difficulty verbalizing to one another.
One of the great assets of Z FOR ZACHARIAH is the strength of the
lead actors here. Ejiofor, as
heís demonstrated time and time again, brings such raw and unforced
naturalism to just about any film he populates.
Pine has the tricky task of playing Caleb as a man thatís both
outwardly sincere and congenial, but one that never fully seems to lay all
his cards on the table. Robbie
is someone thatís so impossibly and luminously beautiful that it easily
distracts us from what a quietly strong and understated actress she is; Ann
is the emotional anchor of the film and Robbie sort of effortlessly dials
into her constant crisis of conscience throughout the story.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH looks positively sensational at times despite its limited budget. Zobel and cinematographer Tim Orr evoke a rich atmosphere mostly from making bravura usage of their widescreen canvas and by painting the screen with stunning location shooting. Filmed in New Zealand, the sumptuous vistas on display in the film have both familiar overtones while relaying a sense of the stark unknown, which echoes the nagging insecurities of the filmís characters. Visually at least, Zobel and Orr are able to masterfully suggest the sheer isolation that Ann, Loomis and Caleb are trapped within. Yes, the immensely rich textures of the panoramic expanses in Z FOR ZACHARIAH feel lovingly inviting, but what looms beyond them is a tortured environmental hellscape that can't harbor civilization. As a result, the film films both sprawling and claustrophobic at the same time.
The film builds towards a hauntingly ambiguous and cryptic ending that may have many that demand absolute closure crying a resounding foul. If anything, the uncertainty that viewers will feel walking out of Z FOR ZACHARIAH will, no doubt, mirror the distressing qualms that shadowed the characters throughout the narrative. Most importantly, Zobelís film is not a pathetically paint-by-numbers love triangle drama: it respects the relative intelligence of audience members by not laying down everything that happens to Ann, Loomis and Caleb in a neatly preordained path. Z FOR ZACHARIAH is not a film for impatient viewers; itís a short film, but it definitely demands a tolerance to witness the way Zobel admirably and methodically gives his characters breathing room to command our interest in their plight. This all allows for Z FOR ZACHARIAH to emerge as one of the more surprising meditations on seclusion and hopelessness that Iíve seen lately. It also wisely understands the intrinsic human desire to be with other people, even when the longing for companionship and contact can sometimes be unsettling forces.