Director Craig Zobel’s followup to 2012’s “Compliance,” “Z for Zachariah” is a solid relationship drama disguised as post-apocalyptic tale. The events of the film, which take place in the wake of an unspecified nuclear disaster, are defined more by its astute observations of human behavior in the face of devastating loss than any of science fiction conceits. With visuals more focused on lush New Zealand landscapes than abandoned architecture, Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi treat the material — based on the young adult novel by Robert C. O’Brien — with an accomplished tone of rugged futurism.
However, reminders of the fictional backdrop are reinforced by the recurring appearances of an advanced HAZMAT suit, starting with the first scene. The character shown scavenging for supplies in a poisoned ghost town is revealed to be Ann Burden, who self-sustains on her father’s farm in a beautiful, uninfected valley. Ann is a strong-willed, street-smart woman played with tough honesty by cast MVP Margot Robbie (of “Wolf of Wall Street” fame). Thanks to Robbie, Ann’s formidable survival instincts are never obscured by her own character’s sweet-natured religious sensibility or by her occasional lapses into human folly. The film suffers most when she’s relegated to the background.
When Ann unexpectedly comes across a strapping young fellow survivor named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), she rescues and nurses him back to health after realizing that he has inadvertently washed himself with infected water. Loomis recovers slowly, and eventually finds himself in a position to offer Ann help with his scientific and technological insights. Ejiofor makes for a compatible match with Robbie, and their chemistry together — carefully molded in shades of emotional nuance — maintains a compelling hold. The textured approach to each character’s behavior deepens an otherwise straightforward narrative. During the first half of the film, their relationship steadily grows more complex, and culminates with a convincing romance.
But progression of their mutual attraction is complicated with the sudden appearance of yet another fellow survivor, this one named Caleb (Chris Pine). Loomis immediately feels jealousy toward Caleb’s attributes — he’s a smooth talking religious hunk who’s more brawn than brain. At this point, the focus of the film shifts somewhat abruptly to a competition of masculinity that Caleb eagerly plays, as the emerging love triangle becomes increasingly difficult for all parties to ignore.
The twist arrives to the detriment of the film, given the agreeably more subdued approach to its characters’ detailed interactions that came earlier. Although Ann remains at the center of the triangle, the story gets away from her. It doesn’t help that Pine’s character receives the least substantive development into a character, which is a problem for making the rivalry fully convincing (at times, it’s hard not to think of his recent tongue-in-cheek turn in “Into the Woods”). Still, in spite of the lesser material, Pine does a fine job at playing the male tempter to Ann and the animalistic threat to Loomis.
With only three actors onscreen, “Z for Zachariah” owes much to its visual appeal. The photography by cinematography Tim Orr (a David Gordon Green regular) plays up the stillness of the landscape, while the film’s unfussy conclusion punctuates its admirably minimalist approach. Even as the story’s increased tension weakens its subtleties, Zobel’s sensitive handling of the emotional tone throughout grounds the film with an overarching realism despite the far-fetched setting.
“Z for Zachariah” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Lionsgate will release it theatrically later this year.