A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2015

RANK: 19

Z FOR ZACHARIAH jjj
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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

Z 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. 

Zobel 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 a vast 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 and isolation.  

 

 

On 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. 

Based 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 future survival. 

Of 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.

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