'Z for Zachariah'
Some post-apocalyptic tales are big and action-packed like this summer’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. Others are small and quiet like this week’s ‘Z for Zachariah’. One thing that all movies in this genre tend to share is an unrelentingly pessimistic view of humanity.
If nothing else, the latest film by deeply underrated director Craig Zobel (‘Compliance‘) sure serves up plenty of pessimism and then some. It’s undeniably a tiny film with little in the way of spectacle, but at the same time ‘Z for Zachariah’ is sure to burrow under the skin and unsettle like few movies you’ll see this year.
Freely adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 novel of the same name, Zobel’s film stars Margot Robbie as Ann, a young woman who may well be the last alive on Earth. We’re introduced to her covered in protective clothing as she heads to an abandoned town searching for books and supplies. An unnamed catastrophe has claimed most life on the planet and left the rest under a cloud of radiation. Somehow, Ann lives in a patch of land that avoided the disaster. She believes it’s a result her stringent faith, but she’s about to have that questioned.
While seeking supplies one day, she finds Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist wandering through her community. After living in bunker for years, Loomis emerged in a radiation suit hoping to find some semblance of society. He’s shocked to discover Ann and she welcomes him. They form a friendly, if tentative partnership. Ann’s open heart and faith don’t exactly mesh with Loomis’ cynicism and scepticism, yet they quickly become friends. Sexual tension rears his head, even though Loomis puts it off as part of his paranoia. Then, into this strange little unit wanders bearded country boy Caleb (Chris Pine), which causes the tensions that the film toyed with before to heat up further.
Zobel takes his time teasing out the movie. Along with his brilliant cinematographer Tim Orr, he establishes the off-kilter tone immediately. The images are beautiful and yet something feels wrong. The pregnant pauses in the dialogue always leave a tension hanging in the air. Given how few characters are on screen at any given time, it’s remarkable how complicated and troubled the relationships become.
The central trio are all ideally cast and give skilful performances. Robbie finds an intriguing balance between doe-eyed innocence and a wearily wise temperament. Ejiofor plays a character clearly scarred and troubled with warmth and empathy even in his darkness moments. Meanwhile, Pine plays a hunky fantasy figure with an undercurrent of menace flavoring everything he says that makes him impossible to pin down.
Despite the minimal locations and players, it’s remarkable how much ground the film covers. Zobel explores the value of faith with a sceptical eye and plunges into the depths of dependable human darkness. Even in this seeming Eden populated by what could be the last living people, the film revels in our fallibility. Jealously, anger, betrayal, loneliness, pain and seemingly every other unfortunate human impulse comes into play. Yet the film and the actors never lose their empathy for the central characters. The story builds to somewhat vague punchline that will enthrall some and infuriate others, but even if you don’t feel like the filmmakers stick the landing, there’s no denying the power of the piece.
‘ Z for Zachariah’ is a wisely cynical movie with an oddly moving heart, and it’s another wonderful cinematic achievement for Zobel. It’s only Zobel’s third film after the oddball dark comedy ‘Great World of Sound’ and the deeply disturbing (and rather brilliant) ‘Compliance’. (Weirdly enough, he was also one of the creators of the internet cartoon ‘Homestarrunner’) . Even though he makes small movies for small audiences, he’s a wise and intriguing talent producing products unlike anyone else. His movies are always more complex than they initially seem and deliver intense emotional experiences that can’t be shaken off.
Sadly, aside from the critics who swoon every time he releases a new feature, Zobel remains criminally underseen and underrated. Though ‘Z for Zachariah’ is a slight step down from the stunning ‘Compliance’, hopefully the star casting will finally help the director reach a wider audience. Given the rich cinematic experiences he can deliver with so few resources at his disposal, it would be exciting to see what his unique imagination could possibly dream up on a larger scale.