Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
There is a moment near the beginning of Z for Zachariah when the character of John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) screams for joy. He’s discovered a place in a post-apocalyptic world where the air is clean and the environment isn’t hazardous. He breathes in and out, stunned at his unexpected discovery. You can see the hope in his eyes as he howls with relief — glorious, exhausted relief. It’s a key moment in the film because despite John’s obvious, grateful demeanor, this isn’t a fairy-tale ending. It’s merely the beginning of a new chapter, one in which John will inevitably find new things to worry about and fear, or worse yet, find ways for others to fear him.
Craig Zobel’s follow-up to 2012’s Compliance is a small story with big ideas that work much more often than not. Some of the allegories are a bit heavy-handed, but they’re tempered by the subtle performances by the three leads. Ejiofor and Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) do most of the heavy lifting before Chris Pine (Star Trek) comes in to lend a hand, but all three are essential to the film’s narrative. Zobel’s film is in a different place in both time and genre than that of his most recent effort, but the director proves he is just as able to command strong performances out of more established performers as he is with relative unknowns. It’s a solid transition from the college game to the pros.
We are transported to that aforementioned post-apocalyptic world: a small, unknown town in the rural US (with the sprawl of New Zealand standing in for the production). Ann (Robbie) lives on an uninfected area of land, and thanks to her ability to farm and, most importantly, her great faith in God, she is able to survive for as long as she has. She cooks, cleans, hunts, even visits a nearby church her father built with his own hands to play its organ every once in a while. With the exception of her dog, she is all alone, her faith in God’s plan keeping her sane and on the straight and narrow. She keeps chugging ahead because that’s all she can do. The rest is up to her Lord and savior.
One day, she discovers a man in a hazmat suit taking readings of the area. This man is John, who celebrates by jumping into a nearby lake. Unfortunately, the lake itself is toxic, and he becomes sick. Over a brief period of time, he is nursed back to health by Ann, and they develop feelings for one another, but just as they begin to etch out a possible life together as lovers, the mysterious Caleb (Pine) arrives. Anne’s blossoming sexuality and the formation of a love triangle bring with it growth, confusion, and inevitable jealousy.
The film is an adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s award-winning 1974 young adult novel, and though I haven’t read the book, a quick read-through of its synopsis tells me that screenwriter Nissar Modi has transformed that tale into a work that is very much geared toward adults. The original story has been stripped of its action to instead offer a possible glimpse at just how long two men and one woman can survive together before lust and paranoia seep in. Z for Zachariah puts a spin on the well-worn debate of faith vs. science (John wants to tear down Ann’s chapel to create a watermill to generate electricity; John is a man of science while Ann and Caleb are people of faith) without definitively taking sides with either.
Ejiofor and Pine deliver strong performances, with Pine especially successful at playing against his pretty-boy, heroic image. However, it’s Robbie’s film through and through, as she proves more than capable of transforming into someone that is light years away from The Wolf of Wall Street’s Naomi. Anne doesn’t play at being innocent — she’s practically the trait’s embodiment. Her attempts at flirting and being seductive aren’t coming from a need to fit in but a desire to change. Robbie is just as convincing as this character as she is at playing someone overtly sexual with an over-the-top lifestyle, hopefully an indication of a long, diverse, and successful career to come.
Z for Zachariah wisely avoids flashbacks (which 2009’s The Road should have done) and doesn’t care much for exactly what caused the powerful people of the world to destroy themselves. Zobel is more concerned with how people can never be truly content or forever grateful, no matter the catastrophes they manage to survive. Through Ann, John, and Caleb, we see mankind’s potential along with its inherent sins and are also given the opportunity to see both the positives and negatives of faith and science. The film never tries to answer the question “At what cost survival?”, and as a result, Z for Zachariah succeeds by simply focusing on the question.
Note: All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.