Writer-director Stephen Fingleton’s first feature, “The Survivalist,” takes place in a bleak, ruthless post-apocalyptic world that, with its small cast of stone-faced characters in a lawless land, recalls “Mad Max” and its sequels. But Fingleton swaps the barren desert of those movies for lush terrain and equally textured storytelling driven more by tense glances than words.
Exclusively set in an unnamed countryside, Irish filmmaker Fingleton’s debut builds on his short film “Magpie,” a similarly dreary story of nameless characters battling to survive against dicey odds. While “Magpie” offered a snapshot of that grim existence, “The Suvivalist” stretches it out to feature-length with some difficulty — at 109 minutes, the minimalist tale of three characters living through the seasons in a ramshackle cabin in the woods often feels like a pileup of grimy vignettes. Nevertheless, Fingleton’s precise narrative approach has a hypnotic quality that keeps the unnerving proceedings in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
Dialogue-free for its initial 16 minutes, “The Survivalist” initially centers only on its anonymous lead (Martin McCann), a sullen, bearded young man who spends his lonely days tending to a crop outside his wooden home and guarding his surroundings. While at first hostile towards the arrival of a stern middle-aged woman (Olwen Fouéré) and her twentysomething daughter (Mia Goth), when the mother offers up her child to sleep with their host in exchange for food and shelter he quietly obliges. So begins an unsteady set of alliances, as the young woman simultaneously develops feelings for her new bedmate even as her mother whispers treacherous plans to overtake the property.
Enacted with extreme restraint, this uneasy triangle of relationships take on an abstract dimension that suggest a timeless quality even though the material is technically science fiction. But Fingleton includes just enough details to set the stage for an imaginary future just a few degrees removed from the present: An opening graph charts the decline of natural resources in the 21st century and the accompanying demise of most of the world’s population. For the bulk of “The Survivalist,” it often feels as though we’re watching the last three souls on the planet as they battle through each hopeless day.
With scant details pertaining to their backstories, Fingleton doesn’t always succeed at making his characters deep enough to justify their alternately fierce and melancholic demeanors, which sometimes borders on the robotic. At the same time, their world takes on a poetic eloquence defined by a stillness and longing that calls to mind Cormac McCarthy. Slow, pensive takes of the trio sitting together at the cabin and working the fields draw out the deadness of their environment while also generating continual excitement around the possibility that ominous forces could disrupt their routine at any moment.
And on several occasions, they do. At first, the only true threat comes from the group’s self-destructive tendencies, but the woods harbor far more menacing figures. Aided by cinematographer Damien Elliot’s patient tracking shots and the incredibly textured green-and-brown palettes of the outdoor landscape, “The Survivalist” regularly finds its way to suspenseful extremes. Exquisite framing strategies frequently reveal information unavailable to all the characters at once: an overhead tracking shot of a dangerous pursuit, a gunshot shell scrunched into the fist of one character while another remains unaware.
It’s these remarkable details that turn “The Survivalist” into a fascinating cinematic puzzle riddled with clues to its characters’ intentions. At times showcasing savage, violent behavior, it hovers in a provocative state of moral ambiguity in which even our heroes harbor questionable priorities.
But with the hint of warmth in the relationship between the two younger protagonists, “The Survivalist” arrives at a curiously idealistic conclusion. While its climax leaves open more than a few questions, there’s no doubting that the movie makes a strong case for Fingleton’s talent and provides reason enough to keep tabs on his next project.
“The Survivalist” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.